More than 100 people who make their living in the Kentucky horse industry made their case to three Northern Kentucky legislators Feb. 16, and the message was clear: The economics must change or the state will lose a valuable asset.
The group, many members of which were Thoroughbred horsemen, met with the lawmakers in the Turf Club at Turfway Park, one of two Kentucky racetracks considered especially vulnerable to competition from the racing and breeding industries in other states. One by one, they made their case and outlined the challenges they’re facing given the current state of Kentucky racing.
The focus of the meeting was legislation to authorize video lottery terminals at Kentucky tracks. The bill cleared the House Committee on Licensing and Occupations Feb. 12, and could be heard by the House Committee on Appropriations and Revenue during the current General Assembly session, which ends in late March.
The bill’s fate is unclear. Industry officials said they hope it makes it to the House of Representatives for a vote, and if not, perhaps it could be discussed during a special legislative session this year. In odd-numbered years, the General Assembly meets for only 30 days.
The situation—declining purses, particularly at Turfway and Ellis Park, which make up more than half of the state’s year-round circuit—is critical, horsemen said. They indicated it’s beyond them how the situation developed in the first place.
“I can’t believe I’m standing in Kentucky and we’re even having this conversation,” said trainer Will Hall, who moved to Northern Kentucky after working for a casino company in Las Vegas.
Trainer Chuck Simon, who owns a farm in Central Kentucky, said racing at Turfway has “deteriorated rapidly” in the past 10 years. Simon moved to Kentucky in 1999 and has more than 25 employees.
“I’m the type of person you need to attract to this state,” Simon told the legislators. “Nobody is coming here anymore. I have owners leaving the state because the money isn’t there. It’s unbelievable the state of Kentucky has to beg politicians to save horse racing.”
Simon noted the growing divide between racing at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, and racing at Turfway and Ellis Park. Churchill and Keeneland purses average $400,000-$600,000 a day; at Turfway and Ellis Park, the average is $130,000-$140,000.
Of horsemen who ship to Kentucky for the lucrative meets, Simon said: “After the first Saturday in May, they hightail it out of here and don’t come back.”
Steve Tippett, who has trained Thoroughbreds for 25 years, said he raced at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in 2008 because of the purses offered at the West Virginia track. The move wasn’t cheap—it cost him about $9,000 for housing and $5,600 for fuel—but produced about $90,000 in earnings.
Tippett said it comes down to this: A $7,500 claimer at Turfway can win $4,200 in a race, but at Mountaineer, the winnings are $9,600 for the same class victory.
“Economically, I’m not going to race many horses out of here if we don’t get (racetrack gaming),” Tippett said. “I can’t afford to race at these bottom purses. It’s a slow death. We’re asking you to let us make money for you.”
Lawmakers were receptive to the horsemen’s comments but stopped short of endorsing House Bill 158, the VLT legislation sponsored by Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo. They indicated many questions remain about the bill and what it could do for the state.
Republican Rep. Addia Wuchner, who owns draft horses, said there are complications with the legislation that don’t address the entire revenue and tax picture in Kentucky. She noted about $50 million from a state employees’ health fund will be used to help fund the state’s ailing budget.
“We will continue to look at the equine industry,” Wuchner said. “I’m looking at what has happened to the horse industry. We have a different bill (than last year, when full casino gambling was proposed). I’m not going to tell you how I’m going to vote—if we see a final bill.”
Republican Rep. Sal Santoro said one potential complication is the bill could pass then get hung up in a court challenge. Some argue casino-style gambling requires a constitutional amendment voted on by the public.
“I will vote my district,” Santoro said of his constituents. “I listen to people. I look at (the racetrack gaming bill) as a way of economic development, and that’s how you people need to sell it.”
“This is a signature industry in Kentucky, and I hear you loud and clear,” said Republican Sen. John Schickel, a former Florence, Ky., policeman and fan of horse racing. “I’m going to give it my prayerful consideration.”
The Feb. 16 meeting attracted track employees, representatives of the local pleasure horse industry, suppliers to the horse industry, and several jockeys who race at Turfway. Jockey’s Guild representative Jeff Johnston, a former rider who lives in Northern Kentucky, said jockeys, like horses, will go where the earnings potential is more lucrative.
“Once you get in this industry, you don’t leave it, so jockeys will just leave the state,” Johnston said. “Most of the riders (at Turfway) live in Northern Kentucky because that’s where most of the racing is. They don’t all make money at Keeneland and Churchill. They make their money here.”
Turfway races more than 100 days each year, most of them in late fall and winter. Its signal accounted for about $240 million in total pari-mutuel handle in 2008. Total on-site last year was about $56 million, track officials said.