Facing the harsh realities posed by a weak economy and stiff competition from racetracks in nearby states with more lucrative purses boosted by alternative gaming, two Kentucky tracks April 7 received permission to cut their live race dates this year.
The most significant cut approved by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will take place at Ellis Park, where a planned 48-day meet will now consist of only 23 live racing days. In the other cutback, the all-turf meet at Kentucky Downs will be conducting four days instead of the six the track initially requested.
Ellis Park president Ron Geary said the track made the decision to slash its 2009 racing dates as a result of declines in business, and also based on indications that fewer stables will be at the track this year. Reiterating comments he made to the commission during its March meeting, Geary said Ellis Park will be facing more direct competition from Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park Racing & Casino in neighboring Indiana, where the purses being offered dwarf those offered at his western Kentucky track due to revenue they receive from slot machines.
In addition, other horsemen who previously sent large numbers of horses to Ellis Park for the summer meet have informed track management they plan to send stables instead to Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Pennsylvania and Delaware Park, both of which also have slots-infused purses.
“It is going to be a real effort even to fill 23 days of racing, but we feel with our best effort and that the signals we send out across the country will not embarrass Kentucky racing, we will have an OK meet,” Geary said.
The track operator said he hopes the Kentucky racing picture will change by 2010, as he and others would like to see the state legislature to take up the issue of slots at racetracks during a special legislative session that will likely take place this summer.
“It is our effort to make it through this summer, and hope we have some kind of relief and some kind of chance to survive going forward,” Geary said.
If it had retained the original 48 live dates, Ellis Park estimated daily purse distribution would have been about $69,000, Geary said, down from $130,000 a year ago. With the reduced dates, purses will average an estimated $112,000 daily.
As a result of the revised dates, Ellis Park will race four days per week – Thursday through Sunday – from the July 11 opening day through July 26, and racing only two days per week – Saturday and Sunday – from July 27-Sept. 6. The meet will conclude Sept. 7.
Under the revised race dates for Kentucky Downs, the track will race only on Saturdays and Mondays during two weeks in mid-September. Track president Corey Johnsen said his track’s cutbacks also stemmed from indications there will be fewer horsemen shipping horses and from a downward trend in mutuel handle.
“As a license holder, I take this responsibility very seriously,” Johnsen said. “And we also take the responsibility of managing the horsemen’s money very seriously. It is a very difficult task because you have to balance a number of factors. You have purse money. You have horse availability. And then you have to balance that with putting on races that entertaining and interesting to racing fans and handicappers all over the country. You do need to have competitive, strong races.”
Johnsen, who said Kentucky Downs would like to increase the number of days it races if the business environment permitted, said the track would not cut back on how it maintains the turf course or any other aspect of the operations despite the revised schedule.
KHRC chairman Robert Beck lamented the turn of events for Kentucky racing. “It is disappointing this is beginning to peck away at the year-round racing circuit in Kentucky," he said.
Beck said he and other commissioners could meet with legislators to lay the groundwork for the slots issue to be on the agenda for the special legislative session. He said if the tracks that traditionally race during the summer months have a similar problem in 2010, the commission may have to reconsider the dates structure.
In other action, the commission approved a request from Churchill Downs to conduct night racing three times during its spring meet. The night cards, which would begin at 6 p.m. EDT and have a last race post of about 11 p.m., will be June 19 and June 26 – both Fridays – and Thursday, July 2.
General manager Jim Gates said extensive lighting will be installed throughout the track to allow for maximum visibility during the night programs. He said Churchill had the support of area residents and Churchill horsemen.
“We’re seeing if we can move the needle,” Gates said of Churchill’s effort to try something new in order to simulate business.
Gates emphasized the three night dates are experimental, and there are no plans to conduct it on a regular basis. “We have no current plans than for this to be anything more than a three-night experiment," he said. "We certainly hope it is so successful that we would have to consider whether we want to do it on a more long-term basis.
With one change, the commission also approved a new regulation requiring helmets that meet certain standards for anyone riding on horses at any facility under the commission’s authority. The regulation, which would not take effect until it goes through the regulatory process that could take as long as five months, essentially extends to exercise riders and trainers regulations previously in effect for jockeys.