That Turfway Park is struggling to fill live racing programs for its 16-day meet is no surprise to horsemen, who believe a "perfect storm" developed in September. And lawmakers indicated the climate in the state in regard to racing and breeding probably won't change any time soon.
Through the first four days of its September meet, Turfway offered 35 races, down from 40 for the same period in 2011. According to The Jockey Club Information Systems, field size this year has averaged 7.23 horses per race, down from 8.05 last year, while purses have averaged $81,390 a day, down from $102,212 for the first four days of the meet last year.
The track could fill only six races Sept. 9. The programs for Sept. 13-14 filled as planned, but field size is light. There are 72 horses entered in nine races Thursday night, and 74 entered in 11 races Friday night.
"This is kind of like the perfect storm," said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "Horsemen currently are opting to run at Kentucky Downs, which has better purses and the turf course. The guys stabled at Ellis Park are opting to run in Indiana.
"Then there is the whole medication confusion. Horsemen thought (regulatory) veterinarians were going to be giving Lasix shots during the meet, and that was troubling to them. It might have had some impact on this situation.
"Our purses weren't that good at this meet last year, but we were able to fill races. We've always had a full barn area here in September, but I would say about 35% of the stalls aren't occupied."
There was some uncertainty in August when the racetrack and Kentucky HBPA were without a contract for the meet. A plan by Turfway to charge stall rent when it is dark for live racing in October and November met with strong resistance and was abandoned.
Kentucky Downs this September expanded its meet to six days with average daily purses of $240,000 because of revenue from Instant Racing machines. The track near the Tennessee border launched Instant Racing last September despite an ongoing legal challenge and clearly has benefitted with full fields and a bump in pari-mutuel handle through its first two days of racing.
Turfway, whose majority owners are now Caesar's Entertainment and Rock Gaming, is among the Kentucky tracks that opted not to move forward with Instant Racing until there is clarity from the courts. That could take a while, which leaves horsemen wondering about upcoming meets at Turfway.
"Churchill Downs and Lexington are our two biggest draws for racehorses here, and these people are going to other places to race," Maline said. "It's killing this place. I think we'll be OK in January (2013), but February and March could be very difficult, unfortunately."
There is no racing in Indiana from December through March when Turfway is open, and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in West Virginia is closed in January and February. Still, most of the better horses will race in Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana in the winter.
Ellis Park, which began operating Instant Racing Aug. 31, expects purses to jump 40% next summer, owner Ron Geary said, and Kentucky Downs could add a few racing dates next September. The bigger pots make for an easier transition between meets at Churchill Downs and Keeneland--with the exception of the five months of purse-deficient racing at Turfway.
"Ellis Park is talking about maybe racing four days a week next year with purses of about $200,000 a day," Maline said. "We told (Churchill president) Kevin Flanery that if we have a strong Ellis Park, it's going to help Churchill Downs. We need a strong circuit."
The 2013 General Assembly session is "short" at only 30 days. Legislators said it's too soon to say measures involving the horse racing and breeding industry will have traction.
Republican Sen. Damon Thayer said he has heard "murmurs about taking a run in 2013 on a constitutional amendment (on casino gambling) for 2014." He said a controversial aspect included in this year's failed bill—a 60-mile protection radius for racetracks—would have to be removed for any measure to get enough votes.
"I have not been asked nor am I seriously considering being a sponsor, but I will keep an open mind," said Thayer, who last year moved the bill in the Senate for Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. "The governor hasn't indicated whether it will be part of his legislative agenda. If it does move, there is going to have to be a serious commitment from leadership in the House."
There has been talk about tax reform for things such as feed, fencing, and farm equipment to return some revenue to the industry, but Thayer said that wouldn't do much for the Breeders' Incentive Fund, which gets money from the 6% tax on stud fees.
"I think as the industry recovers from the recession and achieves some stability in stud fees and the number of mares, there will be some uptick in revenue," Thayer said. "But in order to see serious (revenue increases), it would have to come from expanded gambling."
Democratic Sen. Robin Webb said the state of cash receipts in Kentucky "isn't conducive to tax cuts." She also said legislators are unsure of the status of any revenue measures that may be proposed for 2013, and that time could be an issue.
"Redistricting is the elephant in the room," Webb said. "We have a good framework for it, but if (the issue) lingers, the prospects for anything else could be pretty dim."
Webb also said any future language for a constitutional amendment on gambling needs to be presented to legislators well in advance of any vote so it can be studied and perhaps amended.
"It's necessary not only for our consumption but for the public," Webb said. "When municipalities don't know how something is going to affect them, that's a problem."