11/21/2002 12:00AM

Business woes pinned on riverboat action

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Business figures at the Churchill Downs fall meet are down significantly from last year, leading track officials to call once again for a means to combat the serious competition from nearby riverboat casinos.

Through Sunday, day 19 of the 30-day meet, ontrack attendance and handle were averaging 6,800 and $683,924 per day, respective declines of 17 and 19 percent from corresponding 2001 dates. Meanwhile, handle from all sources is averaging $6,117,775 daily, a decline of 4 percent. Figures were provided by Rick Smith, Churchill's director of mutuels.

Field sizes for Churchill races have remained stable at about nine horses per field, an average that continues to help make the Churchill simulcast signal a favorite throughout North America. Without mixing in ontrack handle, Churchill is down less than 2 percent from all sources.

Clearly, the most troubling numbers are local. Unseasonably cool weather may have taken a toll, and perhaps a saturation point has been reached because of the year-round availability simulcasting at Trackside, which has been open since 1992. Moreover, the local economy, like the nationwide economy, generally is in a downward phase.

Yet even considering those variables, there seems little doubt that the overriding factor in the ontrack declines are riverboat casinos in Indiana. At the nearby Caesars riverboat in Harrison County, Ind., which became operational in November 1998, monthly winnings have jumped about 40 percent, from $20 million to $28 million, since Indiana recently began allowing dockside gambling instead of limiting playing time to cruises.

The declines are the result of "a combination of factors, but certainly the addition of dockside has been very significant," said John Asher, a Churchill spokesman. "How much, we couldn't begin to quantify, but it's been the big factor we expected it to be."

Churchill officials have lobbied vigorously in recent years for the legalization of alternative gambling at state racetracks. Last year, the issue came under greater scrutiny than ever but failed to pass through the first chamber of the Kentucky General Assembly.

"Although we are dedicated to live racing, we have steadfastly maintained that alternative gaming at our track is going to be essential to our well-being," said Asher. "It's a critical component if we are going to maintain the quality of our live product."

Perhaps not coincidentally, Churchill has initiated a series of layoffs wherein the track's parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., is positioning some of its employees to assume more of the day-to-day racetrack duties. At least four high- to mid-ranking racetrack employees recently were laid off, including Frank Jemley, vice president of public affairs, and Suzanne Romans, director of community relations.

Final stakes taking shape

Nominations have been released for the four graded stakes that help close out the meet next weekend: the $250,000 Falls City Handicap on Thursday, the $400,000 Clark Handicap on Friday, and the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club and $200,000 Golden Rod on closing day, Nov. 30.

Two of the big names for those races had serious works Thursday over a fast Churchill track. Take Charge Lady, the likely Falls City favorite, went five furlongs in a minute flat, and Tenpins, a major Clark contender, went the same distance in 1:00.80.