After two years of major cutbacks in live racing, Kentucky’s Thoroughbred racetracks are hoping for some stability and are maintaining the status quo in their requests for 2011 dates.
During an Oct. 12 meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s race dates committee, the five tracks submitted requests for 2011 totaling 208 days, compared with the 2010 request for 206 days, a figure that has been revised to 202 due to cancellations.
And although the dates themselves were non-controversial, the racetrack executives and commissioners serving on the committee discussed at length the precarious future of Kentucky racing, which has seen a migration of stables out of the state for larger purses being offered at nearby states where racing is subsidized by alternative gaming.
The declining purses and lack of horses to fill races led to major changes in the racing calendar in 2009, when the 273 dates originally approved for the tracks was pared down to a final total of 238 dates.
Here are the number of days requested by the tracks (and probable total 2010 days) and unanimously approved by the committee for consideration by the KHRC on Oct. 26:
--Churchill Downs, 60 (62)
--Ellis Park, 31 (27)
--Keeneland, 32 (32)
--Kentucky Downs, 4 (4)
--Turfway Park, 81 (77)
By comparison, in 2009 Churchill Downs was originally approved for 73 days before revising it to 66. Ellis Park initially planned to race 48 days in 2009, but slashed it to 23 before the year ended. Kentucky Downs, which runs a boutique turf-only meet, had cut its original six dates in 2009 to four but only ran three due to a weather-related cancellation. Turfway Park was approved for 114 days in 2009, but only raced 105 days due to cancellations.
There were no major changes in the traditional live meet schedules, although Churchill Downs has altered its calendar during the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Turfway Park has shifted its weekly schedules during January and February. Also, Ellis Park has added four days, including three that will overlap with Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said the Louisville track will open the meet on April 30 with a special Saturday night race card and then not race again until Tuesday, May 3, leading up to the May 7 Derby.
Noting the success Churchill has had with night racing, Flanery said the track wanted to "do something special and unique" on Saturday night. He added that the track had trouble filling the race card this year for the Sunday prior to Derby and that a Tuesday card could get added attention because once Derby week arrives, the focus of the racing world will be on the Louisville track.
In response to a question from commissioner Foster Northrop, a veterinarian who practices on the racetrack, Flanery acknowledged he and Turfway Park president Bob Elliston had discussed the possibility of the two tracks shifting their traditional live racing dates in the future. Under the scenario, Churchill would switch its November race dates with Turfway in exchange for the other track’s September dates.
One advantage of a short Churchill meet in September would be to offer better quality racing than that offered at Turfway Park, providing opportunities for horsemen who traditionally race at Saratoga and then are waiting for the Keeneland meet in October. Also, Turfway Park would then be able to open in November, providing uninterrupted racing until March.
Pushed on whether such an arrangement should be considered for 2011, Flanery said it would not be feasible since Churchill Downs will be hosting the Breeders’ Cup World Championships on Nov. 4-5. Also, he said he would like to study the economical advantages and disadvantages of the move.
"I think a lot of research has to be done," Flanery said. "There are a lot of variables. November is a very good meet for us."
Considering that Churchill will have to race in November 2011 due to the Breeders’ Cup, Elliston said Turfway would not consider giving up its September 2011 dates without getting the Churchill fall meet in return.
Elliston said the northern Kentucky oval was adjusting its winter schedule to race four days per week in January and three days weekly in February and March. Elliston said that with only three race days a week in January this year, the track found itself in the frustrating position of having too few races for the number of horsemen wanting to enter horses.
With a paucity of tracks racing in January, Turfway Park can benefit by having more racing that month and then cutting back the following two months as competition heats up.
Elliston agreed to pursue a suggestion from racing commissioner Betsy Lavin that the track conduct live racing on President’s Day, Monday, Feb. 21. Turfway’s dates request calls for racing on a Friday-Sunday weekly schedule in February, but agreed with Lavin that a holiday card could attract fans and bettors.
Ron Geary, the owner of Ellis Park, said the Henderson track had a "pretty successful" meet in 2010 and as a result was adding four days back to its racing schedule, including three days that overlap with Churchill Downs on the July 2-4 Independence Day weekend. He noted that by racing fewer days Ellis Park offered purses sufficient to attract an average of 9.6 horses per race.
Despite the track being among the top five tracks by average daily handle during its summer meet, Geary said Ellis Park was unable to persuade either TVG or HRTV to air the track’s races on a live basis. He said the racing television networks each were offered exclusive access to Ellis Park’s races, but that neither opted to take the signal. He noted that on the one day when Ellis Park’s races was aired on one of the networks, the track saw a bump up on wagering.
While the racetrack executives seemed satisfied with their 2011 dates’ requests, some commissioners were skeptical, considering the downward spiral the industry has experienced in recent years.
"It is frustrating we don’t have tracks working together to make ‘less is more’ work," said commissioner Tom Ludt, referring to the success that tracks have had with limited, boutique-type race meets. "As painful as it is, less is more. I don’t know why we don’t try to do something different. I would much rather see us to go shorter meets, with fewer races and with higher purses."
KHRC chair and dates committee chair Robert Beck requested representatives of the racetracks and horsemen’s groups to schedule a meeting to discuss an array of issues facing Kentucky racing, particularly the declining horse population and purses.
"I am frankly very concerned about the year-round circuit (in Kentucky) in two and three years," Beck said, imploring the racetracks and horsemen to "come up with something to improve the overall circuit."