Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs

Anne M. Eberhardt

Churchill Applies for September Race Dates

Churchill, Turfway Park, and Kentucky Downs requested conflicting September dates.

During a lengthy, controversial Kentucky Horse Racing Commission race dates committee meeting, representatives from Churchill Downs, Turfway Park, and Kentucky Downs debated the reasons why they should be awarded live racing dates in September 2013.

The dates requested by all three of the Kentucky tracks overlap the first two weekends of the month, while Churchill and Turfway's dates also overlap the last two weekends.

While Turfway and Kentucky Downs typically race in September, Churchill's request for dates during that month is new. The track's fall meet usually runs from late October through late November.

All three tracks said they would like to be the host track–the track that would derive the most revenue from out-of-state simulcast signals in Kentucky—during their given September dates. Committee members voted to reconvene at a later date to make their final recommendations.

The KHRC next meets Oct. 17. State law calls for the commission to award next year's dates by Nov. 1.

Churchill requested 12 dates in September over four three-day weekends after Labor Day. Two of those dates could be night racing programs and would be scheduled around the University of Louisville home football games, Churchill president Kevin Flanery said.

"After a lot of discussion with the commission, horsemen, and others, we agreed to apply for September race dates," Flanery said. "We're trying to find something new we can do that's good for the industry. We're excited about the possibility."

Flanery said Churchill could offer purses of up to $240,000 a day next September compared with the $97,000 a day Turfway offered this September.

"I want to compliment Kevin for thinking outside the box," said racetrack veterinarian and commission member Dr. Foster Northrop. "This is what I've been urging for three years. I can tell you the backsides of Churchill Downs and Keeneland are overwhelmingly supportive of a Churchill fall meet."

Daniel "Chip" Bach, director of operations at Turfway Park, said the Florence facility should be awarded its usual September dates in spite of the fact it has struggled to fill races given a purse structure that lags behind the state's other tracks.

"I think we work hard and we perform a service to horsemen that run at lower levels," Bach said. "Since the ownership has transitioned this summer, we've invested $500,000 in the facility, we're putting out a product people are responding to, and we're listening to our investors."

Bach said Turfway would have to redesign its business model if it failed to secure its September dates. "It would really compromise our ability to do business the rest of the year," he said.

Commission member Edward "Ned" Bonnie, who is also a Thoroughbred owner, called Turfway's purse structure "an embarrassment" to Kentucky racing. He said Turfway needs to figure out a way to supplement its purses, through Instant Racing or other sources of revenue.

"I hope and expect your new owner is going to invest in your purse structure," said Bonnie, whose opinion was supported by several other committee members.

Based on its success over the last year with the installation of Instant Racing machines, Kentucky Downs asked for eight days of live racing—three in March and five in September, with a rain check day for each meet.

Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen doesn't think the track's overlap in dates with Churchill and Turfway is a huge issue. Turfway has no turf course, while Kentucky Downs is an all-grass track.

Churchill usually hosts only stakes and allowance contests on its Matt Winn turf course, while Kentucky Downs has mostly claiming events.

Rogers Beasley, director of racing at Keeneland, requested customary race dates for the Lexington track of April 5-26 and Oct. 4-26. Beasley did express concern for Kentucky Downs' request for race dates in March, however, as he feared it would interfere with horses being ready to run at Keeneland in April.

Also during the meeting, Ellis Park in Henderson proposed to add the last weekend in June, which conflicts with Churchill's schedule.