Status of Turfway, KY Industry Discussed

Status of Turfway, KY Industry Discussed
Photo: Pat Lang

Officials wouldn’t comment April 8 on growing rumors of an impending ownership change at Turfway Park in Kentucky, but they did say plans call for live racing to continue.

Turfway, which just concluded its winter/spring meet with gains in pari-mutuel handle, is owned in partnership by Caesars Entertainment (Harrah’s) and Keeneland. Caesars is licensed to build a full-scale casino in Cincinnati, Ohio, about 15 minutes from Turfway.

Rumors have a trucking company or other casino company buying Turfway outright, or Keeneland selling its 50% share. One major casino operator has indicated it’s not pursuing Turfway.

“There are a lot of rumors, and I have no idea how they get started,” Keeneland president Nick Nicholson said on the Lexington racetrack’s opening day for the spring meet. “To that, we have no comment. We are involved in Turfway and are going to be involved in Turfway.”

When asked if Turfway would remain open for live racing, Nicholson said: “Yes.”

Turfway reopens for live racing Sept. 8 for about four weeks, then is scheduled to reopen upon closure of the Churchill Downs fall meet.

“There’s nothing to speak to at this point,” Turfway president Bob Elliston said. “Keeneland continues to be an owner of Turfway Park as does Caesars. We have no plans to eliminate the racing dates we currently have, and our expectation is we will ask (for the same schedule) for next year.”

Earlier in the afternoon Nicholson, Elliston, and Churchill president Kevin Flanery participated in a roundtable on the radio program “Eastern Standard” on WEKU, a public broadcasting station based at Eastern Kentucky University. The one-hour program focused on the opening of Keeneland and the state of the Kentucky horse industry.

The track officials outlined the competition Kentucky racing and breeding is battling from states that permit alternative gaming at racetracks. They also noted the tradition of racing and breeding and the cultural aspects of the industry in Kentucky.

“The breeding industry is a treasure,” Flanery said of Kentucky, which accounts for about 33% of the North American Thoroughbred foal crop. “It’s part of the fabric of the culture.”

Nicholson said protecting that culture and its economic benefits is challenging and “complicated” because of the reality of competition for the gambling dollar and horses. He said that ideally all casino gambling would be located in Las Vegas and Atlantic City as it was a few decades ago, but that’s not the case.

“Horses will leave Kentucky to race on other circuits,” Nicholson said. “Kentucky racing is on life support right now. There’s nothing we can do to change that right now—that’s the reality.”

In follow-up comments, Nicholson said the planned casino for Cincinnati “changes the ballgame for this area and Turfway. We can’t put our heads in the sand and ignore that.”

“We’re losing ground because we’re doing nothing right now,” Elliston said. “We had (some growth during the recent meet), and we did that with baling twine and duct tape. So in the face of (the competition), that keeps me optimistic.”

The Kentucky Supreme Court, perhaps this summer, will rule on the legality of regulations governing Instant Racing machines, which are pari-mutuel in nature but resemble video lottery terminals. If wagering on historical races is authorized, the revenue would be of particular assistance to Turfway and Ellis Park, which races a few months in the summer.

Also of interest this year is the November gubernatorial election; the state of the horse industry figures to be one of the issues on the campaign trail.

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