An official with Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots assured Louisiana lawmakers May 6 that owner Churchill Downs Inc. will make the improvements required under a conditional license it received from the Louisiana State Racing Commission.
Fair Grounds president Tim Bryant was on hand to speak during a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation that would mandate CDI devote 10% of revenue from slot machines at Fair Grounds to capital improvements at the track and its New Orleans-area off-track betting parlors, which also have video poker machines. The LSRC said CDI must improve the turf course; improve the live racing experience, and add an infield video board; better market live racing; and upgrade the barn area.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Connick had passed the House of Representatives on a 94-0 vote. The Senate committee deferred action on the bill for one week, but not before blasting CDI and criticizing the company for not sending executives to Baton Rouge for the hearing.
"It sends the wrong message that corporate is not giving us the courtesy of hearing this first-hand," Sen. John-Paul Morrell told Bryant.
"I want you to deliver a message to corporate," Sen. Ronnie Johns told Bryant. "I don't need a promise or a commitment. I need something to happen. We're hearing this racetrack is just a shell of itself. If something doesn't change and we don't satisfy the horsemen, next year you will see a bill. And it won't have Sen. Connick's name on it–it will be my name on the bill."
While in the House, Johns represented the district that includes Delta Downs Racetrack & Casino when the racetrack slots legislation was passed about 10 years ago. He said he wasn't naïve to believe the track's owners wanted racing more than gaming, but the legislation has served its purpose.
"It has been the salvation of Delta Downs," Johns said. "I never hear a complaint from horsemen about Delta."
Sen. Helena Moreno said legislation is a last-ditch attempt to bring about change through a binding commitment. "The problem is we still have a trust issue (with CDI)," she said. "If we can come up with an agreement, it would resolve the trust issue and we can move forward."
Bryant said Fair Grounds intends to meet the requirements of the LSRC, and that he would "reach out immediately after this meeting." He said he would also discuss the Senate hearing with CDI executives.
"We have heard the collective feedback," Bryant told the committee. "As a result, Churchill Downs has made some commitments. I'm confident that with additional resources and our capable team at Fair Grounds, we can make improvements in these four areas."
Horsemen's representatives told lawmakers they took offense to previous suggestions by CDI that the company is paying purses at Fair Grounds. Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association executive director Keith Gee said the slots legislation mandates that a percentage of revenue go to purses and breed development.
"They did not give that (money) to us," Gee said.
In response to comments from horsemen's representatives, Bryant outlined CDI's investment in Fair Grounds. He said the company's overall investment is $149.7 million, which includes about $17 million in an insurance payment received after Hurricane Katrina. He also said the track has paid $150 million in taxes and, as a result of having slots, $250 million in purses.
"That's not our money, but it's something we have paid through the horsemen," Bryant said of purses.
In response to prodding by the committee, Bryant stated that over the past four years, Fair Grounds has generated $22 million to $25 million a year in earnings before taxes.
Morrell, in another warning to CDI, noted the New Orleans City Council has the right to hold a referendum revoking approval for slots at Fair Grounds, and that its members are in tune with activities at the racetrack.
"What you are dealing with today is just the tip of the iceberg," Morrell said. "At some point (local outrage) is going to give. The city council meets year-round, so regardless of what happens (in the legislature), there is a body that meets year-round. I hope this will go you a sense of urgency (to make improvements)."