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Bright Spot Can't Hide Reality in Kentucky

The purses at recent Turfway Park meet tell the tale for Kentucky racing.

David England retired from training Thoroughbreds more than a year ago, but it didn’t take him long to give it another shot.

“I still see my psychiatrist over that,” England said, noting the current state of Kentucky racing. “I like projects. I don’t like to see anything not reaching its potential. It’s hard to walk away from it. And there are ways to put people back in this place.”

England was referring to Turfway Park, which joined with horsemen Oct. 2 for an interactive fan appreciation day with special events and dollar food and beer. The crowd of about 3,500 was much larger than it would have been on a typical Saturday.

England was credited for getting the idea off the ground. Horsemen based at the track participated by placing hundreds of signs around the area, offering tours of their barns, and meeting patrons on the apron.

“We’ve watched the deterioration of our fan base and sport in general,” England said. “We’re still waiting for the General Assembly to help us out, but we have to help ourselves survive. It’s a small effort but a first effort.”

Turfway concluded its 16-day meet Oct. 3 with average daily purses of $109,868—a staggeringly low figure brought about by the gutting of the September stakes schedule and an inability to boost overnight purses. The average was $20,000 less than in 2009, and $70,000 less than in 2005.

On Oct. 2 in neighboring Indiana, Hoosier Park Racing & Casino offered a $1 million program featuring the grade II Indiana Derby. The lowest purse of 14 races--$28,000 for a $25,000-$20,000 claiming race—exceeded any purse offered at Turfway the entire meet with the exception of a $100,000 grade III stakes.

The bright spot of the meet was average field size of 9.58 horses per race, the result of a reduction in weekly race days from five to four and reliance on lower-level races. But product-wise, not only is the middle level gone, the top is gone.

“If Ohio racetracks get slots, we may be the Waterford Park of the future,” Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association executive director Marty Maline said, noting the West Virginia track that offered a steady diet of $1,800 purses before it turned things around with alternative gaming in the 1990s.

Bill Casner, who was on hand Oct. 2 with wife, Susan, to display their 2010 Kentucky Derby trophy for fans, credited England and Turfway with putting together the appreciation day relatively quickly. He said it’s important for racetracks to get families involved in horse racing.

“These aren’t even innovative things—they’re common sense,” Bill Casner said. “We need opportunities to connect with people and grow the fan base. It’s going to require innovation and people thinking outside the box. This will require the industry to come together and find ways to reinvent itself.”

Casner, co-owner of WinStar Farm in Central Kentucky, also called on the Kentucky General Assembly to take action. He singled out Republican Senate President David Williams as “doing everything he can to destroy 100,000 jobs.”

Williams, who is running for Kentucky governor in 2011, opposes expanded gambling and has taken the horse industry to task for not finding ways to help itself.

“This is the signature industry in Kentucky, and he’s doing everything he can to see that it doesn’t exist anymore,” Casner said. “The stone cold fact is Kentucky is losing its horse industry.”

England acknowledged a need to find revenue to increase purses to make them competitive with those in other states.

“Staying open when you’re starving is not a real option,” he said. “We’re watching our business slide out from under us.”