Ellis Park owner Ron Geary

Ellis Park owner Ron Geary

File Photo

Ellis, Turfway Balance Hope, Hard Decisions

Two Kentucky racetracks face an uncertain future the next two years.

Ellis Park owner Ron Geary said June 24 it’s too soon to say a commitment from the racing industry and legislators to fight for racetrack gaming will keep his track open beyond the 2009 season.

Meanwhile, Turfway Park and the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association plan to sit down soon to devise a plan that could include reductions in purses and racing dates for future meets. Even the Kentucky Cup Day of Champions is on the table for discussion.

Geary, one of about 1,000 people at Keeneland for a nighttime rally that was part pep and part political said he was encouraged by the sense of purpose displayed at the rally, but time is short. Ellis Park opens July 11 for a condensed racing season.

“I’ve got to play it by ear,” Geary said. “We’re trying to make sure we don’t embarrass the state or ourselves (during the meet). I can handle losses, but I can’t handle not being able to attract horses. We’ll have to see what we do during this meet.”

Dates requests for 2010 are due in late summer. As of now, Ellis Park plans to close after Labor Day.

The first condition book reflects a purse increase—maiden special weight events, for example, are up to $25,000 this year—made possible by reducing the meet to 23 days from 48. Geary said had the traditional schedule remained intact, purses would have averaged about $69,000 a day.

Instead, daily purses will average about $115,000, plus money from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. If the upper-level races fill, the average would jump to about $140,000 a day.

“We have a carryover of KTDF money from last year, and we’re going to use it all,” Geary said. “I think July will be stronger than August, and we plan to be innovative and creative.”

Ellis Park, which heavily relies on local community days to get patrons to the track, plans various weekend promotions. Whether it’s the track’s final meet or not, Geary said the session will be “celebratory.”

Turfway, which opened as Latonia Race Course in 1958, will celebrate its 50th anniversary when live racing begins Sept. 9. The track plans numerous promotions to recognize the milestone, but the mood will be questionable in light of recent developments.

“It’s nearly inevitable we’ll have to reduce purses for September and December,” Turfway president Bob Elliston said before the Keeneland rally began. “The only other option is to reduce dates. It’s something we are analyzing right now.”

The Sept. 26 Kentucky Cup Day of Champions is slated to offer $750,000 for five stakes, three of which are graded. The grade II Kentucky Cup Classic is valued at $350,000, $150,000 of which is KTDF money.

Elliston, who like Geary believes the rally sent a positive message, said track officials and horsemen haven’t yet discussed the status of Kentucky Cup in 2009 as it related to maintaining overnight purses.

“I hope we don’t dismantle Kentucky Cup—it’s a big day of racing for Turfway,” Elliston said. “But we do have to balance our stakes program with our overnight program. I guess nothing is taboo at this point.”

"It's something on the front burner," Kentucky HBPA executive director Marty Maline said. "I've talked with (Kentucky HBPA president) Rick (Hiles) about it, and need to sit down with Bob (Elliston) and explore that. Bob has told me more than once he may have to dramatically cut purses and race days.

"I haven't spoke with our board about it; we need to get their feelings on it. They've given a lot of support to Kentucky Cup and love the day, but it's probably something we'd have to seriously look at. (Funding Kentucky Cup) for the last two or three years has been difficult."

Ellis Park and Turfway combined offer about seven months of racing in Kentucky’s year-round circuit. Elliston has said Turfway’s future is up in the air after 2010 in the absence of revenue from alternative gaming.