By James Platz
Indiana Downs has battled winter weather to get ready for its first Thoroughbred meet, but officials believe things will fall into place by opening night April 11 and grand opening day April 12.
General manager Jon Schuster said progress is slow, but for the most part on schedule. The grounds will be open to horsemen March 21, but because the weather hasn't cooperated, training won't begin until a week later. In fact, the cushion has yet to be brought in for the one-mile racing surface.
"If we get the right weather, it will be a five- to seven-day delay (in training)," Schuster said. "The safety rails are up, but the walkers aren't set up yet."
Indiana Downs conducted a 19-day Standardbred preview meet last December. Jockeys' quarters weren't constructed before that meet began, which left another task to complete this spring. Ground was broken 10 days ago on a 7,100-square-foot facility, and Schuster said it would be completed days before the opener.
More than 90 sites carried the Indiana Downs harness signal last winter, so officials have an indication of how well the Thoroughbred signal may be received. Simulcast contracts were sent out roughly a week ago, with 15 contracts already secured. Schuster hopes to line up between 150 and 160 facilities to take the signal.
"I think it's going to be a pretty popular meet," Schuster said. "I think we'll fare pretty well. Our meet is short enough that we'll have a pretty nice flavor."
The flavor will come in the form of a daily purse structure estimated at $105,000. Racing secretary Butch Cook said the demand for stalls is at a premium, with 1,100 horses vying for only 400 stalls.
Cook has received confirmation from Gary Patrick, Stanley Roberts, Ray Stifano, and Marvin Johnson, four of the top five trainers at Hoosier Park in Indiana last fall. Dennis Moore and Ken Powell, who finished second and third, respectively, at River Downs last fall, plan to be on hand for the 30-day meet.
Cook has written a condition book with a bottom claiming price of $4,000 and a minimum purse of $7,000. The highest claiming price will be $25,000. Open allowance races will carry a bottom purse of $16,200, and starter allowance events will go for $11,000. Maiden-claimers will race for $7,800 at a bottom tag of $7,500.
Purses for Indiana-sired or -bred maidens are set at $18,200, state-bred allowance races will be offered for $19,200, and state-bred claimers will race for $7,500 with a claiming price of $5,000.
Cook, a veteran racing official, believes shippers will make or break the racing program. "I have a 120-stall receiving barn, and I plan on keeping it full," he said. "I'll be living and dying on ship-ins."
The 30-day Indiana Downs meet could put further pressure on an already congested racing schedule. In April, Beulah Park, River Downs, and Thistledown will be open in neighboring Ohio, and Fairmount Park and Hawthorne Race Course will be open in neighboring Illinois.
Indiana Downs will offer seven stakes, five of which will showcase state-bred horses. The track will also offer five Quarter Horse stakes.
What remains to be seen at this point is whether the Indiana Downs signal will be received at Churchill Downs Inc.-owned tracks, and whether the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association will allow the Kentucky Oaks and Derby signals to be transmitted.
CDI director of communications Julie Koenig Loignon said horsemen have allowed Indiana Downs, located in Shelby County just south of Indianapolis, to take bets on the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. An off-track betting facility owned by Indiana Downs and located in Evansville, a few miles from Churchill-owned Ellis Park in Kentucky, couldn't take the bet.
Hoosier Park, owned in part by CDI, and Indiana Downs are required by the Indiana Horse Racing Commission to share and receive signals.
Hoosier Park, located about 45 minutes north of Indiana Downs, opens its harness meet March 22. The two tracks will be open for live and simulcast wagering during the same period.