Keeneland, other tracks feeling economy's pinch

If the adage holds true that misery loves company, Keeneland Race Course will have no trouble finding other tracks to join it this season in a struggle reflecting national trends.

Through the first four days of Keeneland's fall meet, the picturesque track saw its all-sources handle decline 21 percent compared to last season despite a stacked opening weekend that featured five Grade I races and near ideal weather.

On Thursday, however, Keeneland received confirmation it is not alone in its woes. According to the "Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators" released by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Equibase Company, pari-mutuel wagering on U.S. races decreased 9.85 percent during the third quarter from 2007.

For the nine months ending on Sept. 30, wagering is down 5.75 percent compared to 2007 levels, with purses dipping 0.04 percent.

With an increasingly shaky economy and continued turbulence on Wall Street as a backdrop, even top-level meets at Saratoga (New York), Keeneland and Del Mar (California) previously immune to such factors are battling to stay within sniffing distance of last year's numbers.

The repercussions of the declines have already been felt at Churchill Downs as the Louisville track announced earlier it would cut $975,000 from its stakes program for its upcoming fall meet, including the elimination of two races.

"The gambling industries, Vegas, Atlantic City, they were always thought of as recession-proof. This year they're going negative and we're seeing the same thing in horse racing with the decline in handle," said Robert Evans, president and CEO of Churchill Downs Inc. "We're a discretionary income item. You have to buy food, you have to buy gas, you have to pay your rent, you have to pay your mortgage. But you don't have to go to the racetrack or go to the movies or go to a sporting event. So we're in the firing line of difficulty when the economy gets tough."

While the economy plays a huge role in the decline, other factors are contributing to racing's adversity.

With the perception of excessive anabolic steroid use and the high-profile breakdown of Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles hanging over the sport, racing's image has taken a hit even among its most loyal customers.

Several horsemen's disputes over account deposit wagering revenue have also affected business, forcing the temporary closure of Ellis Park this summer and preventing simulcast signals from various tracks from becoming available.

"I think a great deal of it is the economy but most certainly racing has been in the news the last several months and in many cases the news hasn't been very flattering," said Jim Williams, director of communications for Keeneland. "You wish you knew exactly what was impacting business because it would make it easier to correct it, if you could correct it. Many things are out of our hands and we've got to address some issues with racing."

Bob Elliston, president and CEO of Turfway Park which had its all-sources wagering drop by 20.2 percent during its recently completed fall meet, said a continued decline in revenue could eventually affect their purses for the winter meet.

For now, Elliston said Turfway and other tracks will have to find new ways to lure fans, whether it be through free admission, reward programs or promotions.

"I think the things we put in place previously, like our FasTrack Rewards program, will benefit us with our loyal fan base," Elliston said. "People are not sitting at home doing nothing but they are reducing what they spend on entertainment. Hopefully the investment we've made will help them make the choice to go to Turfway, not somewhere else.

"The fundamental thing we've learned is we have to try something new, we have to redouble our efforts, we have to sell harder."