Horses

Churchill Downs, Turfway reach deal for race dates

Churchill Downs hopes to have two night racing events in September next year. Track president Kevin Flanery sees great potential in the month, especially if U of L is playing an afternoon football game.
Churchill Downs hopes to have two night racing events in September next year. Track president Kevin Flanery sees great potential in the month, especially if U of L is playing an afternoon football game.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will take up a recommendation next week to shift September racing dates from Turfway Park to Churchill Downs.

The move, which was hashed out Wednesday, will mean much higher purses in the crucial month ahead of the Breeders' Cup championships.

And, Turfway officials said, higher purses in January as well.

Chip Bach, Turfway's director of operations, proposed the Northern Kentucky track concentrate on its existing race dates in January and shore up purses to $175,000 to $185,000 and preserve Turfway's "gemstone" Kentucky Derby prep race, the $500,000 Spiral Stakes in March.

"We heard you loud and clear; $97,000 in average daily purses is unacceptable," Bach told the race dates committee of the racing commission.

Turfway proposes to race only two days in February next year, which will leave a 26-day hole in the racing calendar that month; the track also wanted to cut March to two days of racing most weeks. But, after prompting from commissioners, Bach agreed to accept Sundays in March as "optional" race days in case of bad weather.

He said the track would hope to expand back if instant racing, a slots-like form of electronic wagering on previously run horse races, survives a court challenge or Kentucky tracks win legislative OK for expanded gambling.

Cliff Reed, Turfway vice president and chief financial officer, said the track's purse projections are contingent on betting handle rising as well.

"Making this work requires the public to respond," Reed told the committee. "This assumes a 15 percent increase (in average daily handle). ... This is all dependent on the fan base responding to higher-quality racing through the amount they bet."

Kevin Flanery said Churchill Downs sees great potential in September, particularly if there is an afternoon football game at the University of Louisville. In arguing for the move, Flanery said Churchill hopes to have two night racing events in the month and build a solid simulcasting product as well.

"If Kentucky racing is going to be relevant, Churchill Downs brings something special," Flanery, the racetrack president, said. "We want handle, we want handicappers focused on Churchill Downs. ... It really is about what makes the most sense to capture those eyes around the country."

Racing commissioners said they were pleased that the tracks had proposed some significant shake-ups compared to previous years.

But not all of the proposed changes won support.

Kentucky Downs in Franklin wanted more September racing and a new March meet as well.

"Horsemen are really excited about spring. We're talking about over $1.5 million in purses," said president Corey Johnsen. Kentucky Downs was the first track to put in instant racing and it has poured millions into purses at the turf track as well as other Thoroughbred racetracks around the state.

The committee apparently was unwilling to move too far outside the box before state courts decide the legality of instant racing. No March dates and only five September dates will be recommended. That's down from six dates at the track this year.

But Kentucky Downs did receive a concession: for the first time the track will get six days of "host track" status, meaning it will get extra simulcasting revenue.

Rick Hiles, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, asked why Kentucky Downs will lose a day of racing. "We want more racing down there, not less," Hiles said.

Ellis Park in Henderson also lost a bid for the weekend before the Fourth of July; the committee will recommend that Churchill race it.

Keeneland will keep its traditional race meets of April and October.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will take up the dates on Tuesday.

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