Ellis Park, Red Mile Dates Raise Objections in Kentucky

by Kathleen Adams

The Kentucky Racing Commission granted final approval of 2004 race dates Oct. 28 at a contentious meeting at which Ellis Park was granted a six-day racing week, and The Red Mile was awarded Quarter Horse dates despite objections from the Kentucky Quarter Horse Association's attorney.

Ellis Park, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., plans to switch from a five-day-a-week schedule to six days a week. Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, objected to the change.

"I've talked with lots of horsemen, and their biggest concern is a decrease in the purses at Ellis Park," he said. "It will most likely also decrease our field size and damage our simulcasting."

But Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs, said the Henderson racetrack is facing a huge financial challenge in the form of an Indiana Downs off-track betting parlor located just four miles from Ellis Park in Evansville, Ind., and therefore had little choice in the matter. "It will improve the bottom line," he said.

Sexton said the racing office is confident it will fill race cards, but racing commissioner Robert Stallings strongly disagreed with him.

"Six days of racing will dilute your product," Stallings said. "There's no other racetrack requesting that."

Stallings finally suggested to the commissioners that they go along with the request for an additional week of racing, but only if Sexton would agree to go back to the original five-day-a week-schedule in 2005 if things don't work out as well as expected. Sexton said he would remain flexible on the issue.

"If any of us are here next year, we need to remind Mr. Sexton of his words," Stallings said.

(Kentucky will elect a new governor Nov. 4, and it's quite possible the racing commission will have some new members.)

More controversy arose when it came time to approve Quarter Horse dates at The Red Mile, a Standardbred track located in Lexington. The track had issued a press release the morning of Oct. 28 to announce it had been granted dates, but apparently Quarter Horse racing in 2004 isn't a slam-dunk.

Attorney Michael Valenti, representing members of the Kentucky QHRA, said the organization objected to the dates and alleged there is no valid contract between The Red Mile and the Kentucky QHRA.

"There are questions about safety," Valenti said. "There are overlap dates between Standardbred and Quarter Horse racing. How can they do both?"

Officials from The Red Mile were also at the meeting, and their lawyer, Bill Hoskins, countered Valenti's claim.

"We would say we have a signed contract," Hoskins said. " It has been passed by a majority of (the Kentucky QHRA). Mr. Valenti represents a minority who doesn't want to see it go through."

Talk on the topic ended when commission chairman Frank Shoop broke into the discussion and said: "We're going to award those Quarter Horse dates, and The Red Mile can work it out with them."

After the meeting adjourned, Valenti said he was considering filing a lawsuit against The Red Mile before racing is held July 16-17 as awarded by the commission. There also will be four non-wagering exhibition dates that will allow for year-round Quarter Horse simulcasting in the state.

The Red Mile also received permission to scrap its traditional spring harness meet and race 41 days from July 30-Oct. 5. Track officials have said having one meet would help with export of its signal. The spring meet in Lexington has been held since the early 1960s.

It remains to be seen what distances would be offered for Quarter Horse racing. Though The Red Mile has a one-mile track, it has a short stretch with the quarter pole at the end of the far turn. In addition, a rail would be needed and the track would have to be resurfaced to accommodate Quarter Horses.

Quarter Horse racing in Kentucky was last held in 1992 at Bluegrass Downs in Paducah.

Most Thoroughbred dates awarded by the commission are customary. Here's schedule for 2004: Turfway Park (Jan. 1-April 1), Keeneland (April 2-23), Churchill (April 24-July 5), Ellis Park (July 7-Sept. 6), Turfway (Sept. 8-Oct. 7), Keeneland (Oct. 8-Oct. 30), Churchill (Oct. 31-Nov. 27), and Turfway (Nov. 28-Dec. 31). Kentucky Downs, the all-turf facility, will race six days from Sept. 18-28.

Because of the change in The Red Mile dates, Bluegrass Downs will hold a spring harness meet from April 29-June 5. (The Red Mile in recent years has raced through the end of June.) Thunder Ridge Raceway will offer harness racing Oct. 1-Nov. 21.