Citing a new contract with horsemen, Churchill Downs halted its seven-year history with steeplechasing by canceling the $100,000 Hard Scuffle Stakes for 2004.
Held two days before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the grade I race was a key fixture on the National Steeplechase Association's spring stakes calendar. Run as the first leg of the Steeplechase Triple Crown for the past five seasons, the Hard Scuffle counts five-time champion Lonesome Glory, 2000 Eclipse Award winner Pompeyo, and 2003 Eclipse favorite McDynamo among its winners' list.
"We just negotiated another contract, and (the horsemen) would not give me the OK to use the $100,000 out of the purse account for that race," said Don Richardson, Churchill's senior vice president, corporate racing. "We don't have the purse money to give to it."
The Hard Scuffle purse comes out of the overall purse allotment, which must be approved by the track's horsemen.
"Like in every other state, there's generally a concern for increasing purses," said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "There was a problem taking money from Thoroughbred owners and sponsoring races for a different breed, basically."
While all steeplechasers must be Thoroughbreds, the disagreement comes because steeplechase horsemen are not necessarily flat horsemen–though there is substantial crossover among horses, owners, and trainers. Kentucky horsemen, Maline said, would prefer the track commit $100,000 to a flat race as opposed to a jump race.
Steeplechasing first came to Churchill as a closing-day feature in the spring of 1997 and 1998. Attendance and handle figures were solid, and the track shifted the jumpers to Derby week in 1999 as a way to build Thursday's racing product.
Response to the Triple Crown concept (Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park followed Churchill's lead) was immediate, as 12 horses competed in the 1999 Hard Scuffle, though field sizes have never reached that level again. The 2003 attendance figure of 24,312 set a record for a Thursday at Churchill, but the day included a variety of other activities in addition to the jump race.
"It was thought that the steeplechase would assist in growing our business by attracting more people to the racetrack," Maline said. "From our standpoint, it didn't seem like we recognized any additional growth."
The program was due some shuffling in 2004, as Richardson planned to move the "logistical nightmare" out of an already jammed Derby week but now faces a complete overhaul. The NSA, whose 2004 season begins in March, is working on a Triple Crown alternative that includes races at regular NSA meetings in the spring.
"We are hoping to go to Middleburg (Virginia, in April) instead of Churchill," director of racing Bill Gallo said. "The Pimlico race is a question mark, too, and depends on the slots vote in Maryland. Right now, it's on the schedule, but as a backup plan we've talked to Radnor (Pennsylvania, in May) about hosting the race. The Belmont race is still on."
With the end of the Hard Scuffle, Keeneland stands as the only Kentucky racetrack with a steeplechase race. The $150,000 Royal Chase, renewed for the seventh time in 2004, will again be a major stop for stakes horses but will be run a week earlier (April 16) to better accommodate schedules at Keeneland and within the NSA.
Richardson left the gate open for steeplechasing's return, if the purse funding issue improves.
"I don't want to leave the impression that Churchill wouldn't reconsider it if we could raise the money another way or bring in a sponsor," he said. "It's not off our radar screen. I thought it added a little to the meeting."