Pat Lang

Kentucky Racing Industry Could Feel Tighter Squeeze

The Kentucky racing industry will have even more competition in September when a new Pennsylvania track opens with $500,000 a day in purses for a 25-day meet.

The advent of a potentially strong competitor in western Pennsylvania might have minimal impact on the upcoming meet at Turfway Park, but track president Bob Elliston said it won’t go unnoticed as far as Kentucky Thoroughbred racing is concerned.

Turfway, which races 22 programs from Sept. 5-Oct. 4, will be up against Presque Isle Downs, a new track near Erie, Pa., that will offer about $500,000 a day in purses for a 25-night meet that spans Sept. 1-29. Purses for the fall meet at Turfway traditionally average $165,000-$175,000 per program.

“I certainly admire and am actually envious of what they are giving away in purse money,” Elliston said. “It just demonstrates even more the fragile nature of Kentucky’s status as the best circuit around.”

Kentucky racing and breeding interests have lobbied for expanded gambling with no success since the early 1990s. Since then, casinos or slot-machine facilities have cropped up in neighboring Illinois, Indiana, and West Virginia. Officials claim the lure of bigger purses in other states is a threat to the state’s horse industry, and they plan to lobby next year for gaming.

Though horsemen compete for $400,000-$600,000 a day in purses during the Keeneland and Churchill Downs meets, those tracks are open roughly five months out of the year. Purses at Ellis Park and Turfway average $150,000-$175,000 a day the other seven months in Kentucky.

Elliston said Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund purse incentives and bonuses from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Breeders’ Incentive Fund are benefits to racing in the state that should keep horses in the entry box for the upcoming meet. He said many of the state’s top trainers, including Steve Asmussen, Greg Foley, Eddie Kenneally, and Dallas Stewart, will be well-represented at Turfway.

“Our stall applications were very good--nearly 1,400 requests for 900 stalls,” Elliston said. “It looks very strong in terms of numbers and quality of horses. I’m not that concerned, but (Presque Isle) is another track that wasn’t competing with us before.”

Competition for Kentucky isn’t limited to Presque Isle, which derives purse revenue from slot machines that began operating earlier this year. The bottom purse at Turfway, for $5,000 maiden-claimers, will be $6,000; Hoosier Park, the Indiana track that opens Sept. 1 and next year will get revenue from on-track slot machines, will offer $9,000 for the same class under a purse structure that caters to lower-end classes.

Also, maiden special weight and allowance events at Turfway rely heavily on KTDF supplements. In September, a $22,000 maiden allowance test will include $10,600 in KTDF money, which leaves a total purse of $11,400 for horses not bred in Kentucky; an open maiden allowance event at Hoosier Park, however, is worth $14,000.

Presque Isle has carded open maiden special weight events at a base purse of $40,000, but the actual purse will be $70,000 because the track by law must pay out all accrued purse money--projected at $13 million by the end of August--during its first season.

According to the Presque Isle condition book, several Kentucky-based riders--Jesus Castanon, Corey Lanerie, Godofredo Laurente, and Miguel Mena--plan to ride during the inaugural meet, which features racing six nights a week. There has been high demand for stalls, track officials said.

Agent Steve Elzey, who handles Mena’s book, said the jockey will be based at Presque Isle for the entire meet because of the big pots. Mena, a regular at Turfway, recently won four of eight stakes, including three Claiming Crown events, in one week at Ellis Park.

“I’m going up there full-time with Mena,” Elzey said. “I’ve had several good leading riders, and personally I believe Miguel Mena is as good as there is in the business. We’re going into new territory (at Presque Isle), but right now I’ve got quality people coming to Mena.”

Elzey, who noted Mena will return to Kentucky for the more lucrative Keeneland and Churchill Downs fall meets, said there is an opportunity for horsemen to make a lot of money at Presque Isle, but he said the competition could prove tough.

“Don’t be surprised if you catch two or three from Saratoga in a maiden special weight,” Elzey said. “They’ll show up when you give away that kind of money.”

Promising apprentice Dylan Williams, currently based at Ellis Park with Mena, will move to Hoosier Park, not Turfway, said his agent, Elzey. “I think he can go to Indiana and have a big meet,” he said.

Presque Isle will be the first track to use the Tapeta Footings synthetic surface for racing. Turfway has had a Polytrack synthetic surface since September 2005, and this summer it was tweaked again with a look toward the track’s late fall and winter dates.

“We added a new kind of wax,” Elliston said. “It probably won’t have much affect in September; the intention was the new wax might benefit us in cooler temperatures to avoid some stickiness issues.”

Adjustments have been made at Turfway based on input from horsemen and jockeys. Since the winter/spring meet ended in early April, there have been no catastrophic breakdowns during off-season training, Elliston said.