Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs

Anne M. Eberhardt

Churchill Downs Gets OK for September Dates

Turfway Park will no longer have its traditional September meet.

After last-minute horse-trading and some tough compromises, Kentucky's five Thoroughbred tracks have reached agreement on a 2013 calendar that drastically alters the traditional schedule.

The most significant change before the amended dates requests were approved Oct. 17 by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's race dates committee was awarding Churchill Downs most of the September dates that had traditionally belonged to Turfway Park. Also, except for the first two days of February, there will be no live Thoroughbred racing in the state during that month.

In the only other major development at the meeting, which was the continuation of a meeting that had begun Oct. 1, Kentucky Downs withdrew its request for three live racing days in March after concerns were voiced by Turfway Park that it would create an overlap with its live racing. Also turned down by the committee was a request from Ellis Park to race three days at the end of June, conflicting with the closing of Churchill Downs' spring meet.

During the meeting, members of the committee worked with track representatives to arrive at a schedule that, with a few exceptions, avoids overlapping race days, permitting only one track to race at a time.

Based on the committee's action, the following dates have been awarded Kentucky's Thoroughbred tracks:

Churchill Downs: 72 days (2 in April, 18 in May, 18 in June, 12 in September, 22 in November), plus four optional days in September when live racing can be added if business levels permit.

Ellis Park: 29 days (13 in July, 14 in August, two in September)

Keeneland: 33 days (16 in April, 17 in October)

Kentucky Downs: 5 days, all in September

Turfway Park: 45 days (13 in January, two in February, 11 in March, 19 in December), with four optional days in March when live racing can be added if business levels permit.

Download the 2012 Race Dates as approved by committee document here.

Churchill Downs' request to conduct live racing in September first surfaced at the first dates' committee meeting, with the idea receiving strong support from some members of the panel. At a similar meeting a year ago, representatives of the racetracks were taken to task by the commissioners for attempting to maintain the traditional racing calendar in view of a radically changed business climate. The Churchill move was apparently in response to that challenge.

Also during that Oct. 1 meeting, some commissioners were openly critical of Turfway management, which has new majority ownership, over the track's average daily purse distribution of $97,000 during the September meet this year. By comparison, Churchill estimates it could distribute $240,000 a day next September.

Chip Bach, director of operations at Turfway Park, told the committee Oct. 17 that management had assessed its role within the Kentucky racing circuit and had concluded that conceding the September dates in exchange for a stronger spring meet would be in the best interests of all parties.

Bach said Turfway's decision to drastically reduce its number of live race dates from the 81 awarded this year to 45 in 2013 would permit the northern Kentucky track to have estimated daily purse distribution of $180,000 and support a solid stakes schedule that includes its premier event, the $500,000 Spiral Stakes (gr. III).

Bach also said Turfway is ready to introduce Instant Racing when, and if, a pending court case determines it is legal and would also incorporate any alternative gaming when, and if, it is approved by the state legislature.

"We have every intention to be back in the game," he said.

Kentucky Downs, the small all-turf track in Franklin, Ky., that has seen its financial fortunes soar as a result of success of its Instant Racing electronic gaming, had proposed three days of racing in March as a way to complement horses that might be preparing for the traditional April meet at Keeneland. However, those plans appeared to be under review after a Keeneland representative said three days of racing at Kentucky Downs in March would affect field sizes at the subsequent Keeneland meet.

"Flexibility is the key," Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen said after withdrawing his track's request.

Johnsen said he was disappointed that Kentucky Downs, which is building up a huge purse structure as a result of Instant Racing, was unable to move forward with eight days of racing next year. Instead, the track was awarded five days, one less than in 2012.

Efforts to work out an arrangement in which Kentucky Downs could add dates without overlapping with any of the other tracks were unsuccessful. The only available days of the week would have been Mondays or Tuesdays, which Johnsen said are unprofitable for Kentucky tracks.

While the dates issue evolves around live racing dates, more than anything it also concerns what is known as the "host track" rights in Kentucky. Whichever track has the live racing dates also receives the bulk of simulcasting revenues bet at all facilities in the state during that period. It is estimated that would be about $60,000 daily during September.

Since Kentucky Downs and Churchill now will both be racing live in September, the committee approved an arrangement under which Kentucky Downs will receive the host fees for six days that month.

"Host fees are big money," Johnsen said.

As he did at the Oct. 1 meeting, Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said the Louisville track has plans for special events during the September 2013 meet. He noted that the pleasant fall Kentucky weather and success of the University of Louisville's football team lend themselves to attracting large crowds on weekends.

"Everybody is struggling with what to do for the long-term health of the racing industry in Kentucky," Flanery said of the dates' requests and negotiations that preceded the final action by the dates committee. "This has not been a pleasant experience. We all know that Kentucky right now is not playing on a level playing field with everyone else and that's why we've had to have these difficult conversations."

The proposed 2013 dates will now be sent to the full KHRC for consideration.