Keeneland will begin its spring meet with a bump in overnight purses, but track officials hope it's the start of steady growth made possible by revenue from Lexington's historical race wagering facility.
Historical racing machines, which are regulated by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and considered pari-mutuel, began operating last September at Red Mile, a local harness track, in partnership with Keeneland. As part of the Red Mile rebuild, year-round Thoroughbred simulcasts moved there from Keeneland.
KHRC statistics show gradual growth in historical racing handle in Lexington. For October 2015, the first full month of operation, wagering totaled $11.55 million; in February the monthly total had grown to $18.42 million.
In comparison, Kentucky Downs, which has had the machines since September 2011, handled $37.74 million in February, while Ellis Park, which launched historical racing in August 2012, handled $6.50 million.
The Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund earns 0.75% from half of the total wagering at the jointly operated facility in Lexington. Purse money comes from Keeneland's share of the track commission on total wagering.
"(The historical racing operation) started out as expected," Keeneland president Bill Thomason said April 5. "This is a different product, and the product itself does take time for people to acknowledge. We're very happy with the progress we're making at Red Mile right now and with the partnership with Red Mile.
"I think you'll see improvement in the product, which will be significant for this industry. We're doing for this for one reason: to get money into purses. Everything Keeneland makes on racing and sales is reinvested into the business. We've already been able to make (purse adjustments) this spring."
Keeneland increased the purse for maiden special weight races for 3-year-olds and up from $58,000 to $60,000, and added another $1,000 to all other overnight races.
There has been purse growth in the state, particularly at Kentucky Downs, the all-turf track that last year raced five days. Its daily average of more than $1 million a day in purses was tops in North America. With help from Kentucky Downs, purses at Ellis Park this summer will increase as well.
Turfway Park was approved to install historical racing machines. Track general manager Chip Bach said majority owner JACK Entertainment, formerly called Rock Gaming, is "still in the process of organizing the plans but is working on it earnestly."
The overall objective is to solidify the year-round Kentucky racing circuit.
"There was a major dip about eight to 10 years ago," Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen said. "We were limping along. It's exciting to see ownership of these tracks that really care about horse racing. If we can bring Kentucky-breds home to race it means so much to the economy."
For Keeneland's three opening spring-meet programs—a total of 30 races—18 drew entries of at least 12 horses, an improvement from the 2015 spring meet. Keeneland last spring averaged 8.07 horses per race, down from 9.09 in spring 2014 for the final Polytrack meet.
"We know all tracks have challenges filling fields with quality horses, and we're going to have those challenges," Thomason said. "We've done things to make us more attractive, but we know it takes time because people got accustomed to a different pattern of travel (during the synthetic surface years). We're trying to make the racing program more attractive to those owners and trainers.
"And we know we need to do things to grow our purse program. Our Kentucky horsemen want opportunities to run and it's our obligation to give them opportunities in this state. We need to be willing to take small steps that create momentum and become something significant. That's what this historical racing thing is—it can be very impactful to the entire racing circuit, which is very important."