Anne M. Eberhardt

Churchill Dates Cut Approved; 'Crisis' Cited

Declining field sizes and handle cited.

Amid considerable discussion about a quickly developing crisis facing the state’s racing industry, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission May 12 approved a request from Churchill Downs to eliminate seven racing dates from the current spring meet.

As a result of the unanimous action by the regulatory body, the days in which racing was scheduled but will not take place are May 20 and 28, June 3, 10, 17, and 24, and July 1. As previously announced, in addition to cutting dates, the Louisville track has slashed $425,000 from stakes races scheduled during the spring meet. (Related article)

Citing the domino effect created by declining purses, smaller field sizes, and decreased wagering, Churchill Downs director of corporate communications Kevin Flanery said the action by the track to cut dates and stakes purses was the most viable alternative of seven or eight different scenarios considered by management. He said the moves, taken in conjunction with representatives of horsemen’s groups in the state, were designed to take action that effectively had the least impact on overnight purses.

“The core mission is to protect the overnight races and to protect those people who are here every day,” Flanery said.

Flanery and Churchill Downs general manager Jim Gates cited a number of reasons for the flight of horsemen and their horses out of Kentucky, including competition from states in which purses are being enhanced by alternative gaming revenues and the decision by Ellis Park to drastically cut back on the length of its summer meet. They said horsemen prefer to be on a circuit in which there are greater opportunities to race and that the Ellis cutback led some stables to go ahead and relocate to states where they could go from one meet to another without much interruption.

Flanery provided the commission with a bar graph comparing changes in average field sizes (the number of horses in each race) from April/May 2008 to April/May 2009 at tracks receiving alternative gaming subsidies and those without subsidies. All nine tracks operating without the benefit of subsidies had average field size declines, while seven of the nine that received slots-related revenues had field size increases.

"I liken it to a baseball game where one team is using wood bats and one team is using aluminum. There's a distinct advantage for those tracks that supplement their purses with some sort of alternative gaming. If this is it, we're going to continue to struggle," Flanery said.

Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents Churchill horsemen, said he was convinced that Churchill had tried every opportunity it could to stem the exodus of horses and wagering dollars and that the decisions made by the track were in the best interest of horsemen. He said Churchill had assured horsemen that there would be no more cutbacks during the spring meet, although continued declines could affect the fall meet. He also requested that the commission's approval of the dates cut include a caveat that the dates could be restored should there be a turnaround in business.

Ron Geary, owner of Ellis Park, said he was surprised Churchill Downs was having problems finding enough horses to fill races, but added “no one can be competitive with states with alternative gaming. We're doing everything humanly possible. There's no way to compete against them. As a businessman, if there was a way, I would have found it."

Dr. Foster Northrop, a veterinarian who practices on the racetrack, said many of his clients are considering alternative racing jurisdictions over Kentucky, primarily due to the higher purses and greater opportunities for racing.

“It seems to be imploding faster than we thought. Trainers are looking to get out of here,” he said.

Commissioners John Ward Jr. and Tom Ludt recommended that the tracks and commission consider re-evaluating the entire Kentucky racing calendar in view of the recent developments and look at ways in which the health of the circuit can be maintained.

Ward suggested discarding the traditional way in which things have been done and “re-design the sport in a way that is efficient.”

Commission chairman Robert Beck, who said he would assist in convening a meeting of track representatives before the next KHRC meeting, said approval of the Churchill Downs dates cuts was a “band-aid solution. This is not a fun motion to vote on.”

He noted that the declines in racing would be felt throughout the entire Bluegrass horse industry, including farms and related businesses.

"I think it's fair to say we're at a crisis," Beck said. "This is a short-term band-aid. This is not a long-term solution. While I hate to sit here and take this vote today, it would be worse if we didn't take the vote." 

A bill to approve slots at Kentucky's racetracks failed during this year's legislative session and supporters have been vocal in calling for the matter to be considered by a probable special session this summer that will focus on solutions to the state's budget crisis.

In other action during the meeting:

--Chief state veterinarian Dr. Bryce Peckham reported there were no catastrophic (fatal) injuries among the 1,219 starters during the 15-day Keeneland meet. During the first two weeks of the Churchill Downs meet, there had been two fatalities, including that of Stormalory, a 3-year-old colt who was euthanized after breaking down during the Crown Royal American Turf Stakes (gr. IIIT) May 1.

--Chief state steward John Veitch reported that trainer Miroslav Knava was suspended 15 days after a horse tested positive for the prohibited substance clenbuterol during the Turfway Park spring meet.