Churchill Downs Inc. president and CEO Bob Evans

Churchill Downs Inc. president and CEO Bob Evans

Anne M. Eberhardt

Evans: Kentucky Derby Will Continue to Thrive

But racing in Kentucky needs expanded gambling.

The Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (gr. I) will continue to thrive at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. It's the rest of the year that's a problem for racing venues in the self-proclaimed "horse capital of the world."

Coming off a Derby featuring an upset for the ages by Mine That Bird and the highest TV ratings in 17 years, Churchill Downs Inc. president and CEO Bob Evans said July 8 the shine is still on the first jewel of the Triple Crown.

However, Evans and other industry leaders continue to be worried about the future of racing in Kentucky if the state doesn't find a way to approve expanded gaming.

"The playing field is no longer level," Evans said. "We're not even close to it."

A dozen states, including Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, already have expanded gaming at their tracks. The games give those states another revenue stream to fatten purses and lure horsemen away from non-gaming states like Kentucky.

The Derby, however, appears to be safe, even if one state lawmaker said recently there's a chance another race could replace the Run for the Roses as the first stop in the Triple Crown.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo speculated last month that a track at a state with the ability to supplement purses with gaming revenue could offer a more lucrative alternative for the owners and trainers of the sport's top 3-year-old horses.

The Derby offered a $2 million purse this spring. Stumbo said if another track could find a way to offer purses in excess of $5 million with money from expanded gaming, the Kentucky Derby could be in trouble.

"You can't rule anything out," Evans said. "Maybe somebody wants to comes along with something else to do the first Saturday in May. Bring it on, we'll take it on, but I'm not worried about it."

Evans remains hopeful state lawmakers will find a way to pass legislation to legalize expanded gaming, but it's unlikely a measure would gain any footing in the near future.

The House approved a bill during a special session of the General Assembly last month, but the bill never made it to the floor of the Senate. Senate president David Williams said after the session the bill has no chance of getting approved next year. 

While Evans doesn't see alternative gaming as a cure-all, he does believe it's the most practical way to put the Kentucky horse industry - which generates $4 billion in economic impact and employs nearly 100,000 people - on a level playing field with states that already have expanded gaming.

"Slots aren't going to save racing, but they are going to determine who in racing survives," Evans said. "(Williams) and his supporters have put Kentucky racing on the Do Not Resuscitate list."

Ellis Park owner Ron Geary has already sliced the number of racing dates for this summer's meet in half, and said he'll likely close the historic western Kentucky track for good if an alternative gaming bill isn't passed.

The math is remarkably simple, according to Evans and Geary. Expanded gaming leads to bigger purses, which mean bigger fields and more wagering. Owners and trainers will go where the money is. Right now, the money is moving out of Kentucky, and the state's problems are symptomatic of most racing states that do not have expanded gaming.

"These are desperate times," Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association representative Andrew Schweigardt said.

The bleak financial outlook put a damper on one of the most successful spring meets in recent memory at Churchill Downs. In addition to the underdog story of 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird, the track generated some much-needed buzz during the final weeks of the meet by hosting three night racing events.

Nearly 90,000 people - most of them young, many of them visiting for the first time - turned "Downs After Dark" into a roaring success.

The format will likely return next year, though an official announcement won't come until the fall. The overwhelming success of the event showed the track could handle night racing.

Still, Evans said the prospect of turning the Kentucky Derby into a prime-time event is still "a long way off."