Expanded gambling in Kentucky isn't a front-burner topic right now, but it will be next year when the state holds elections for governor and other top posts, a racetrack official said Nov. 3 during the "Thoroughbred Industry Forum" at Churchill Downs on the eve of the Breeders' Cup World Championships.
"Come 2007, I think you're going to hear a whole lot more about it," Turfway Park president Bob Elliston said during the event sponsored by Frost Brown Todd, a Louisville, Ky.-based law firm. "The issue will be front and center in the context of the next governor's race."
Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who opposes expanded gambling but wouldn't stand in the way of a constitutional amendment vote, plans to run for re-election. It remains to be seen who will seek the Democratic nomination.
In recent years, legislation to authorize slot machines or full casino games at the state's racetracks has been introduced, but it has failed to win enough support. Next year, there's only a 30-day General Assembly session, so 2007 is seen as the next opportunity for a gambling push.
Kentucky racing interests will be watching election results Nov. 7 in Ohio, where voters will decide the fate of the "Learn and Earn" initiative that calls for slot machines at the state's seven racetracks and two non-track locations in Cleveland. Ohio racing officials have predicted purses at the state's three Thoroughbred tracks could triple to at least $150,000 a day, a figure competitive with purse levels at Ellis Park and Turfway Park.
Ron Geary, the Louisville businessman who closed on the purchase of Ellis Park in September, cited research that shows Kentuckians spent about $1 billion at casinos in neighboring states. He said that's about $200 million to $300 million in tax revenue that could go to Kentucky.
"As a citizen, I think Kentucky has to consider pursuing gaming," Geary said. "And it's not only critical to Ellis Park but all tracks in Kentucky."
Geary said pari-mutuel handle at Ellis Park, located in western Kentucky, dropped about 30% when a riverboat casino opened in nearby Evansville, Ind., 11 years ago. It dropped another 30% when Indiana Downs opened an off-track betting parlor in Evansville, he said.
Geary said Ellis Park would "find a way to make it work" and has every intention of trying to improve its product. But of the competition, he said: "It's like asking us to compete against a Ferrari race car with a bicycle."
Elliston said competition for horses from Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania, all of which are approved for racetrack slots, will affect all Kentucky tracks. Philadelphia Park, for instance, has projected year-round daily average purses in the $400,000 range. The track intends to funnel much of the money to overnight events rather than stakes.
"We're talking about going to a gunfight with a pocket knife," Elliston said of the looming battle for racing stock around the country.
The racetrack gaming legislation offered earlier this year by the Kentucky Equine Education Project would have provided about $145 million in additional purse money each year for Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, as well as about $30 million in breed development funds.