09/11/2012 1:05PM

Churchill Downs considering September dates request for 2013, setting up possible conflict with Turfway Park

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Churchill Downs is exploring the possibility of requesting dates for a meet next September and setting up a possible conflict with beleaguered Turfway Park, although such an option “has lots of hurdles, not just with Turfway, but how we would do it,” according to a Churchill spokesman, John Asher.

Asher said Churchill was asked to look into taking over the September dates by “some horsemen” and by members of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Turfway, the northern Kentucky track that traditionally has raced in September and during four winter months, is struggling mightily to attract horses and handle, while turf-only Kentucky Downs in the southern part of the state is conducting a six-day meet through Sept. 19.

Churchill’s 2013 dates request filed recently with the commission did not include the September dates, but tracks can amend their requests as late as Oct. 1. The commission must formally assign 2013 dates no later than Nov. 1.

Turfway’s interim general manager, Lee Dillard, a longtime employee of parent company Caesars Entertainment, said Turfway “would like to” hold onto its traditional dates and that a more thorough study of the situation would be required to comment further.

With few exceptions, Kentucky dates have been the same for decades, with Churchill hosting racing for 10 to 11 weeks in the spring and 4 to 5 weeks in the fall. The addition of a permanent lighting system in 2010 has changed some ways the track has conducted its live race meets, but not its windows of dates.

Kentucky Downs substantially boosted purses for the current meet to an estimated $400,000 per program with the help of Instant Racing gaming machine revenue. The track’s president, Corey Johnsen, has said the track may apply for as many as eight September days for 2013.

Asher said in a release that “we have had some internal discussions . . . and are seriously considering how [September dates at Churchill] could benefit Kentucky’s horse industry. We look forward to continued discussions with all parties involved.”

Churchill purses typically average (combined spring and fall) more than $400,000 daily. Turfway is projected to average barely more than $100,000 per day at the current 16-day meet.

One of the two horsemen’s organizations in the state, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, is on record as supporting the move from Turfway to Churchill for September, but the other, the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, has some initial reservations, according to Marty Maline, executive director of that horsemen’s association.

“When you first hear it, you think, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea,’ ” said Maline. “But once you sit back and think about it, there are a lot of concerns, especially how it might adversely affect [the Churchill] fall meet. The purses are propped up enough right now after the Derby in the spring and in the fall. We don’t know if horsemen would be prepared to run for considerably less than what they’re accustomed to. I don’t want to say we’re negative about this, because our board has yet to meet. We all just have to make sure we’re careful what we wish for.”