05/19/2009 11:00PM

Call renewed for slots aid in Kentucky

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On an afternoon when racing normally would have been taking place, leaders in the Kentucky racing industry gathered Wednesday at a media conference in the Churchill Downs paddock to echo a familiar refrain: The industry desperately needs alternative gaming to remain viable.

"We've been asking for 10 years," said horsemen's representative Rick Hiles, one of seven speakers during a 30-minute presentation. "Now we're pleading."

The media conference - held, by no coincidence, on the first dark day at Churchill since the track cut seven days from its 2009 spring meet - was called to emphasize the crisis conditions that have come to exist in the Kentucky racing industry. The owners of all five of the state's Thoroughbred tracks addressed the issue, including Bob Evans, president of Churchill Downs Inc., and Nick Nicholson, president of the Keeneland Association.

Evans said the "proverbial barn door had been left open" by the Kentucky legislature failing to provide the industry with the means to compete with racing states such as Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Racinos in those and other states accrue alternative-gaming revenue for purses and have gained a sizable competitive advantage over Kentucky. That point was further illustrated earlier this month when Churchill - where all-sources handle is down an estimated 20 percent from last year during the current meet - reduced its dates, primarily because of a chronic shortage of entries.

Churchill and Keeneland are easily the two largest and most successful Thoroughbred tracks in Kentucky, where three lesser tracks have struggled mightily in recent years.

Ellis Park, the 87-year-old western Kentucky track whose owner, Ron Geary, threatened to close it last year because of financial woes, already has cut its dates from 48 to 23 for its 2009 summer meet. Turfway Park, the northern Kentucky track battered for years by intense competition from riverboat casinos in neighboring Indiana, has seen its racing product badly eroded by a soft purse structure. Even Kentucky Downs in the south-central part of the state has reduced its September 2009 dates from six to four.

Geary said during the conference that Kentucky "has been outlegislated and outmaneuvered" by states that have provided their racing industries with alternative gaming.

The media conference came in the midst of an all-out push by Kentucky racing interests to get slot-machine legislation passed during a yet-to-be-scheduled special session this summer. Earlier this year, a bill that would have legalized slot machines at state tracks failed to win approval, but state budget revenue has continued to plummet, leading to the possibility of a special session. The campaign for slots at state racetracks has been led for years by the Kentucky Equine Education Project, a consortium of horse industry leaders and political figures that in recent weeks has used radio commercials and other public-relations initiatives to try to deliver its message to the public at large.

Nicholson said at the end of the Wednesday conference that he and other industry leaders "are increasingly confident that this compelling argument eventually will carry the day."

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who was out of the state Wednesday, has told various media outlets in recent days that the state's racing industry is "in crisis." Beshear ran on a platform favoring alternative gaming at tracks before being elected in November 2007.