Anne M. Eberhardt

Turfway Slashes Purses; Lowest in 20 Years

Officials said an overpayment and a drop in wagering forced a 25% cut.

In yet another sign of trouble for the Kentucky horse racing industry, Turfway Park said it will slash overnight purses 25% effective March 3 because of an overpayment coupled with lower pari-mutuel handle.

The minimum purse will drop from $6,000 to $4,500, a level unheard of at a major Kentucky racetrack in more than 20 years.

The purse for a maiden special weight event will fall to $19,600 from $22,000, while a first-level allowance race will go for $21,400, down from $24,000, according to the March 3 overnight sheet. Those numbers inlcude Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund supplements, which make up more than half the purses.

Barring new revenue sources or a spike in handle, track officials said the lower purse structure could be in place for meets in September and December of this year.

“We have actually paid out almost 12% more in purses so far this year compared with 2011; however, most of the overpayment resulted from not having to cancel any race cards this winter, a contingency we take into account but cannot predict, as the current mild winter proves,” Turfway president and chief executive officer Bob Elliston said. “Compounding the problem is that wagering both on track and at other outlets is down 6% from where we expected it to be.

“Quite frankly, this unfortunate cut in purses for the remainder of this meet won’t resolve our overpayment entirely, and further reductions are likely as we move into September and December.”

Recent developments in other jurisdictions have had a dagger-like effect on Kentucky racing. The Turfway purse cut is the latest blow.

"Turfway's purse cut comes in the same week that New York boosted purses 27%, Gulfstream announced a 15% purse increase, and Oaklawn announced a $100,000 per week purse increase," said Patrick Neely, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project. "It is imperative for Kentucky's legislature to put Kentucky racing and breeding on a level competitive playing field, or stories such as this will continue to occur with regularity until our industry has been irreparably damaged."

The Turfway stakes schedule remains intact, though it already was cut earlier this year when four $50,000 races were suspended to preserve overnight purses. In addition, purses for the March 3 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes and the March 24 Rushaway Stakes, both for 3-year-olds, were trimmed from $100,000 to $75,000.

With the prospect of expanded gambling dead for now in Kentucky, the only option is Instant Racing, which two tracks, Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park, moved ahead with despite a pending lawsuit in the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Turfway and other tracks in the state have said they won’t install the machines—ruled pari-mutuel by the state Attorney General—until the suit is resolved.

Oral arguments in the Instant Racing case are expected to be held in April.

Instant Racing, since its launch at Kentucky Downs last September, has produced about $400,000 for purses. Kentucky Downs has said once its purse schedule is set for this year, it is open to sharing purse revenue with other tracks.