Experiment With Fewer Dates Continues in KY

Experiment With Fewer Dates Continues in KY
Photo: Pat Lang

Another experimental year continues in Kentucky as Ellis Park wraps up its summer meet and Turfway Park prepares for a scaled-down session with only one stakes.

Kentucky racetracks in 2009 began trimming live racing dates to maintain purse levels and increase field size. For the most part, it has worked; quality has been the casualty.

Between the closure of the Churchill Downs spring meet in early July and opening of the Keeneland fall meet in early October, only five stakes—four of them at Ellis Park—were scheduled. And upper-level claiming and allowance horses continue to leave the state to run elsewhere for more money at tracks with gaming-fueled purses.

Ellis Park doesn’t release daily pari-mutuel handle figures. Available statistics, however, appear positive.

According to The Jockey Club Information Systems, purses through the first 23 days of a 27-day meet averaged $164,406, up more than $30,000 a day from 2009, while average field size was 9.56 horses per race, up from 9.18 for the 28-day meet in 2009.

Ellis Park used more than $400,000 in Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund money accumulated last year to increase some purses this year. Thus, it can offer $30,000 for a maiden special weight event versus the $21,000 Turfway will offer.

Turfway has dropped Wednesdays and will race only 16 days from Sept. 9-Oct. 3. With only one stakes, it will be hard-pressed to meet the daily purse average of $129,430 for the comparable meet in 2009, but hopes to build on the average field size of 8.57 horses per race.

“This year continues to be an experimental year,” Turfway president Bob Elliston said. “We’ve gone from 115 days (of live racing), to 80, and now 76. We continue to evaluate our meets to determine what to do for 2011.

“Lots of tracks can reduce live racing dates and make their big days better. We find ourselves having to cut big days to prop up overnight purses. We’re not in a position to artificially prop up purses. We have to do it organically.”

That means through pari-mutuel sources. With racetrack video lottery terminals nowhere in sight, Turfway hopes for quick resolution to legal proceedings tied to the validity of Instant Racing machines in the state.

“We continue to do planning for Instant Racing,” Elliston said. “We’re doing behind-the-scenes work so we can implement Instant Racing as quickly as possible (should the ruling be favorable).”

With the blessing of Kentucky horsemen, Turfway was able to scrap this year’s Kentucky Cup Day of Champions so money could be used for overnight purses. Many agree the move left a big hole in the meet and Kentucky racing.

Elliston said there is demand for Kentucky Cup, of which four races are graded. Should three of the races not be run in 2011, they would lose those grades under the rules of the American Graded Stakes Committee; the Juvenile will lose its grade this year by not being run two consecutive years.

Last year, the two ungraded Cup races for 2-year-olds were canceled. This year, Ellis Park dropped its 2-year-old stakes, making for three consecutive months without a juvenile stakes in Kentucky—a situation Elliston said isn’t good for the business.

“We’ve had some really good 2-year-olds come here (in the past),” Elliston said. “We have to be able to restore the Kentucky Cup, including the juvenile races, next year. We want to get back to that but we can’t do it and give away $70,000 a day in overnight purses.”

There will be one stakes Sept. 11: the $100,000 Turfway Park Fall Championship (gr. III) at 1 1/2 miles. It is a designated Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” event for the Breeders’ Cup Marathon.

The regular stakes program remains in place for the holiday and winter-spring meets that run from December through March 2011.

For the December meet, management opted to drop Wednesday evenings, making for a four-day race week. Racing will be held three days a week in January and February, and perhaps four days a week in March.

The December meet usually has an average field size of 10 horses per race, but Elliston said the six or seven consecutive days of racing post-Christmas spread the horse population thin. He said racing only four days a week early in the month should help increase field size.

The track usually offers day racing between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but in a break from tradition in an attempt to drive ontrack participation, racing on New Year’s Eve, a Friday, will be offered in the evening with a 5:30 EST first post time. Elliston said plans call for hosting multiple parties throughout the plant during and after the races, and offering shuttle service to nearby hotels, where rooms will be reserved for track guests.

Turfway also signed a contract with International Sound Corp. for enhanced video services beginning in September. There will be digital transmission of the signal rather than analog, new camera locations, and more video-review options for the stewards.

Keeneland, which opens Oct. 8, earlier announced a $1 million reduction in stakes purses for its fall meet and, according to the recently released condition book, also has adjusted overnight purses. Maiden special weight events will race for $47,000 this year versus $50,000 last fall, and allowance race purses have been similarly trimmed.

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