04/29/2014 2:45PM

Churchill Downs Inc. granted conditional license to operate Fair Grounds


The Louisiana Racing Commission on Tuesday granted Churchill Downs Inc. a one-year conditional license to operate its Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans after track officials told the commission that the company was committed to a number of initiatives in the next 12 months to improve the track and its customer service, according to officials.

The commission’s decision gives Churchill a one-year reprieve in what had been shaping up as a tenuous situation for the company. If the commission had declined to approve the license, Churchill would not only have been required to cancel a meet that is a popular winter destination for horsemen, but it would have faced questions about its legal authority to operate a year-round slot-machine parlor at the track generating $40 million in revenue annually.

The commission granted the approval after Tim Bryant, the president of the track, provided details about capital improvements and other initiatives planned at Fair Grounds, according to officials. The plans included a commitment to spend $200,000 on the track’s turf course beginning in late May and an additional $200,000 to replace a video board in the infield that has been broken for several years. Bryant also said the track would provide regular reports on its staffing in the mutuel department and increase its marketing efforts for horse racing.

Bryant also said Churchill Downs Inc. would overhaul the turf course completely after the 2014-15 meet if the improvements this summer did not address drainage problems. The condition of the turf course was a major source of complaints among horsemen at the track’s 2013-14 meet.

“We look forward to working diligently on the proposed conditions in order to ensure that racing continues at one of the most historic tracks in the country,” Bryant said in a statement.

Churchill’s management of Fair Grounds was targeted by horsemen this year, largely because of complaints about the condition of the track and grandstand. Churchill Downs Inc. also has been in the crosshairs among horseplayers recently for a decision to raise the takeout rates at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., creating a public-relations mess in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

The license approved Tuesday is conditioned on Fair Grounds providing regular updates to commission staff on its efforts to repair the turf course and improve its operations, the commission said.

Under Louisiana law, the commission had a deadline of May 1 to approve the license. Last week, the commission deferred a decision to approve a 10-year license renewal.

Still undecided is whether the state Senate will approve a bill requiring Churchill to spend 10 percent of Fair Grounds’s slot-machine revenue on capital improvements at the track. The bill passed the House by a vote of 94-0 two weeks ago but has not been introduced in the Senate.