10/17/2012 3:40PM

Churchill Downs moves closer to approval of September meet


LEXINGTON , Ky. – A committee of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to recommend a September meet at Churchill Downs in 2013 after Turfway Park, which had traditionally raced during the month, conceded the dates.

The recommendation was part of a significant reshuffling of the Kentucky racing calendar for next year, though the committee denied requests by two tracks, Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs, to expand their live schedules. The full Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is scheduled to consider the 2013 dates on Oct. 23, and it’s likely that the commission will approve the recommendation.

Churchill and Keeneland would be the big winners. Churchill requested September dates two weeks ago, largely at the behest of several commission members but also because recent declines in business at Turfway had made the early fall dates vulnerable. Keeneland was able to protect its April meet by arguing against three days of live racing by Kentucky Downs in late March, contending that the extra days would draw horses away from Keeneland’s spring meet.

Under the schedule recommended by the committee, Churchill will run Friday through Sunday on all four weekends in September. The track’s president, Kevin Flanery, said that Churchill would be able to “conservatively” offer $240,000 a day in purses, compared with roughly $100,000 a day at Turfway.

Turfway’s director of operations, Chip Bach, opened the meeting Wednesday by telling the commission that Turfway had decided to concede the September dates to Churchill, citing the committee’s positive response to the proposal two weeks ago and the need for Turfway to improve its average daily purses.

“It’s very difficult to do, but we understand what you are looking for,” Bach said.

Turfway asked to pare racing dates from its winter schedule, requesting approval to race three days a week instead of four in January and forgoing live racing in February on all but two dates. Turfway previously raced four days a week during February, but Bach said the track has had difficulty filling races during February due to the opening of tracks in West Virginia, where purses are heavily subsidized by casino revenues.

With fewer live dates, Bach said that Turfway would be able to distribute an average of $160,000 a day in purses.

The decision by Turfway to reduce live winter racing dates mildly upset representatives of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, but those same officials were far more distressed by the committee’s decision to deny the three dates to Kentucky Downs in late March. The KHBPA had urged Kentucky Downs to apply for the dates as a way to distribute money the track has been earning from slot-machine-like devices called Instant Racing.

As it turned out, Kentucky Downs was awarded five live racing dates – Sept. 7, 11, 14, 18, and 25 – one less than the track ran in 2012.

At one point, when it became clear that the committee intended to shoot down the March request, Rick Hiles, the KHBPA’s president, turned to Kentucky Downs’s president, Corey Johnsen, and said: “I thought we were going to eight days.”

“Rick, I don’t know where to run them,” Johnsen said.

Afterward, Johnsen said he would discuss with horsemen how to distribute the estimated $4 million in purses that the track will have available next year. It’s possible some of the money in the purse account will be applied to other tracks, Johnsen said.

The committee also denied a request by Ellis Park to run three days over the last weekend in June, which would have been in conflict with the closing weekend at Churchill’s Downs’s spring-summer meet. Committee members made it clear that they were against awarding overlapping dates, citing the struggles by racetracks in attracting horses.