It's Crunch Time for Horses, Dollars at Midwest Tracks

It seems as though the horse supply and the betting dollar is about to get stretched even further in the Midwest, where racetracks and casinos are plentiful.

Indiana Downs in Indiana and River Downs in Ohio open April 11 and April 12, respectively, in an already saturated racing region. And that's two more simulcast signals for wagering outlets in the Midwest and beyond.

By the middle of April, live racing will be offered at Fairmount Park and Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois; Indiana Downs; Beulah Park, River Downs, and Thistledown in Ohio; Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia; and Keeneland in Kentucky.

In late April, add Great Lakes Downs in Michigan to the mix. Many of the tracks in the region offer races for comparable classes.

Despite the glut of racing, Indiana Downs and River Downs both had more stall applications that they have stalls. Indiana Downs, which plans to rely heavily on shippers, received 1,100 applications for 400 stalls. River Downs received 1,800 applications for 1,300 stalls.

Indiana Downs racing secretary Butch Cook said the 120-stall receiving barn would be quite busy during the two-month meet.

"I'm surprised we had as many stall applications as we did," River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian said. "It's difficult for us to compete with Mountaineer and Indiana because of purse structure. We don't know what kind of meet (Indiana Downs) will have, but it will have some impact on us."

The minimum purse at River Downs is $4,500. For the inaugural Thoroughbred meet at Indiana Downs, it's $7,000, and at Mountaineer, which has slot machines, the bottom purse is $10,300.

Casinos in the Midwest continue to take their toll on pari-mutuel wagering. Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky wrapped up its winter/spring meet April 3 with a 12% decline in on-track handle and numerous lost racing opportunities because of winter weather.

Keeneland in Lexington opened April 4 and registered declines in on-track and total handle for its first three days of racing. On April 5, a Saturday, on-track handle was down almost $200,000 from the comparable day in 2002.

Ohio racing in particular has taken a beating in recent years, and the trend continues in 2003. From Jan. 1 through March 29, total handle at seven tracks (three Thoroughbred and four Standardbred) was $114.1 million, down 12.2% from the same period in 2002. Business at River Downs was off by 9%, while the other tracks were in the 11% to 15% range.

The Ohio track with the highest daily average handle (live and simulcast wagering) for the period was Northfield Park near Cleveland at $296,323. And even that number was down 14.3% from the same period last year with only one fewer racing day.

Hanessian said the 9% decrease in total handle surprised him given the fact River Downs has the most competition in the form of three riverboat casinos in nearby southeastern Indiana and Turfway in Kentucky. He said River Downs and two other Ohio tracks continue to pursue statutory changes that would allow them to keep more of the purse money they generate on site.

Indiana Downs is the second track to open in Indiana. Hoosier Park, which opened in 1994, is currently open for live Standardbred racing and multi-breed simulcasting. The two tracks, located less than an hour apart, will race head-to-head most evenings, and are required by state law to exchange signals.