Kentucky Blues

by Ed Meyer

posted on May 11, 2009 in General Discussion, News | 3 Comments >>

When Turfway Park canceled a makeup day of racing earlier this year because of insufficient entries, the shock value was minimal.

With tracks in competing states using revenue from other forms of gambling to offer purses and breeding incentives larger than those generally offered in Kentucky, such a day had seemed inevitable for years.

Similarly, when owner Ron Geary told the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in March that Ellis Park would cut its number of racing dates this year and may be forced to close in 2010 because it can no longer compete with the racino tracks for horses, it came as no bolt from the blue.

What surprised me was that Turfway and Ellis lasted as long as they did before canceling a race date, shortening a meet or contemplating the regrettable possibility of shutting the doors.

As Kentucky’s competitive disadvantage with the racino states has worsened in recent years, Turfway and Ellis have become the endangered species among major Kentucky tracks, the ones that don’t have a Kentucky Derby week or a lucrative sales business pumping supplemental millions into their operations for the rest of the year.

But even if worse came to worst for Turfway and Ellis, even if racing as Kentuckians have known it for decades — i.e., a year-round circuit in the Bluegrass State — came to an end, the assumption has always been that Churchill Downs and Keeneland would survive and soldier on. And they probably will, but perhaps not at the standards they’ve set in the past.

Last week, just a few days after 153,563 people attended the 135th Run for the Roses, Churchill Downs started canceling races — one a day for three days. Thursday’s card went from nine races to eight; Friday’s and Saturday’s dropped from 11 races to 10.

“We’re now experiencing what other tracks around the state have experienced,” Churchill spokesman Kevin Flanery told The Courier-Journal. “Horses that traditionally ship in to run at our races can run at tracks in the region that have slots-fed purses such as Mountaineer, Presque Isle. They can run for purses just as rewarding and high as they are at Churchill and with less competition.”

It was the latest, and most disturbing, example of a phenomenon Geary noted in his remarks to the Racing Commission back in March: “Kentucky’s signature industry … is fading away, folks, before our very eyes.”

If the most renowned track in the nation — the mecca of meccas for American Thoroughbred racing — can’t attract enough horses to fill its normal cards just a few days after the glitz and glamor of the Derby, the pace of that fade-out has quickened.

Unfortunately, too few of Kentucky’s political leaders seem interested in doing the one thing that can keep Kentucky’s racing industry competitive, that can keep owners and trainers who have raced here regularly through the years from leaving for the greener pastures of racino states.

Kentucky needs expanded gambling for multiple reasons. We need it so most of the estimated $700 million Kentuckians spend gambling in other states gets spent here at home, stimulating our economy. We need it so the taxes generated by that gambling activity educate Kentucky’s children and address Kentucky health and social concerns.

And yes, we need it so our signature industry, a traditional jewel of the state’s economy, can remain competitive in an era of racinos.

Keeping that jewel lustrous doesn’t require one of those massive tax incentive packages the state has approved with abandon over the years to attract or retain other businesses and industries.

All our signature industry needs is to be allowed to join 11 of the 12 nearest racing states in supplementing purses and breeding incentives with revenue from expanded gambling.

My personal preference for doing so would be casinos, because access to a full range of games in a resort atmosphere would keep more of that $700 million here at home.

However, the discussion at the moment involves slots at existing tracks. And even though I consider that to be just a half-step, it’s a half-step in the right direction and could help Kentucky tracks avoid shortening their racing cards, canceling dates and closing their doors.