Ellis Park is seeking to reduce its number of race days per week in 2006 from five to four, but approval of the change has been stalled by opposition from the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protection Agency.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority tabled approval of Ellis Park race dates for 2006 at a meeting Monday at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Statue calls for the KHRA, along with the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders and the Kentucky HBPA to jointly approve the race dates by Nov. 1.
Meanwhile the KTOB and HBPA approved for Churchill Downs, the parent track of Ellis Park, to extend its spring race meet one week through July 16. If approved, Ellis Park would begin its meet July 20.
Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs and Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., said cutting back the number of race days from 41 in 2005 to 29 next year and racing four days a week instead of five would increase field sizes and average daily purses from $110,000 to possibly $125,000 or more if the stakes program and overnight handicaps are factored.
"We're actually willing to take less business over four days versus a five-day week to try to see if we can try to turn the track around and increase the quality of racing--that's really the ultimate goal," Sexton said at Monday's meeting.
Sexton cited growing competition from nearby riverboat casinos and an OTB operated by Indiana Downs as reasons for a decline in purses and a need for change. He said this is an attempt in "turning the ship in a positive direction."
"We'd like to think in the spirit of cooperation and partnership in the business that the horsemen claim they have with us that they would consider alternative options to try to improve business for everybody," Sexton said.
Marty Maline, executive director of the HBPA, said going to four days a week would set a "bad precedent" and his board would like to maintain 41 race days and give horsemen an opportunity to race at both Churchill Downs and Ellis Park at the same time.
"This is a very difficult situation for the horsemen at Ellis Park and the horsemen who race at Ellis Park from other locations who would try to exist on only four days of racing," Maline said.
"We've had discussions with Churchill and we fully recognize what they're trying to accomplish with increasing the purses and perhaps get a better class of horses at Ellis Park, but at the same time we feel there are some things that could be done regarding stakes purses and overnight handicaps and other things that we could do and still maintain a respectable purse structure and yet give horsemen the opportunity to race five days a week."
In 2005 average field size for Ellis Park was 7.97 horses per race for a five-day week. In 2004 Ellis Park went to six race days per week seeking to generate more business. Average field size was eight in 2004 compared to 2003 when field size was just under nine for a five-day week.
Sexton said he is disappointed in the HBPA response and is not optimistic about getting the proposed race dates and a four-day week approved in two weeks.
"Ideally I would like to think the horsemen as well as our track racing group is working to find ways to increase field sizes in an era of declines," Sexton said. "Ultimately what we're doing with the case of Ellis Park is to see if we can increase field sizes by increasing the average daily purse and changing the race schedule around a little bit. We don't have an answer today, but we're sure willing to work toward one."
The KTOB approved the Ellis Park race dates, but encouraged Churchill Downs to extend its spring meet to not one, but two weeks in order to offset costs accured by horsemen in transport to Ellis Park, and also give horsemen an opportunity to race for higher purses for two additional weeks.