09/30/2014 2:54PM

Churchill, Kentucky Downs at odds over September dates

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky’s September race dates have once again emerged as a major source of contention.

This time, the dispute is pitting Churchill Downs, which ran its first September meet last year after wresting them from Turfway Park in 2012, against Kentucky Downs, the all-turf track near the border of Tennessee that has drawn praise over the past several years from horseplayers for its full fields and low takeout rates.

At a meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s dates committee on Tuesday, Churchill requested 12 September race dates in 2015, on a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule from Sept. 10-27, but the track’s president, Kevin Flanery, said that Churchill would not run the dates if any other track was granted race dates within that same time frame.

Meanwhile, in addition to dates Sept. 5 and Sept. 30, Kentucky Downs requested five live race dates during the time frame when Churchill requested dates, and the track’s president, Corey Johnsen, said after the meeting that if he was not granted those specific dates, the track would not request any others. That left a stalemate.

As has been done in the past when dates are contested, the dates committee adjourned without debating the September proposals. Committee members expect to spend the next several weeks attempting to fashion an agreement between Churchill and Kentucky Downs that “will be in the best interests of Kentucky racing,” said the committee’s chairman, Robert Beck, after the meeting was adjourned. Beck is also the chairman of the full commission.

The next meeting of the dates committee is scheduled for Oct. 14. By statute, dates have to be awarded in Kentucky by Nov. 1 of the preceding year.

Three years ago, Churchill Downs went to the dates committee and requested the September race dates, traditionally the province of Turfway Park. Following pressure from horsemen and the commission, Turfway abandoned the September dates, and Churchill has run 12-date September meets for the past two years. 

Churchill Downs’s live racing product has suffered double-digit declines for the past two race meets, coinciding with a decision by the track to raise its takeout rates. Handle at Churchill’s spring meet was down 11.5 percent, while handle for the recent 12-day September meet was down 16.2 percent. Field sizes also have declined at both meets, but at a much lower rate than the handle declines.

Meanwhile, handle at Kentucky Downs has skyrocketed. The track’s handle shot up 70 percent for a five-day meet in 2013 compared with 2012, and handle was up another 24 percent this year for another five days of racing. The track advertises that it has the lowest blended takeout in the United States. Its purses, which averaged approximately $1 million a day this year, are heavily subsidized by slot-machine-like devices that operate year-round at the track.

Johnsen told the commission that Kentucky Downs has traditionally run race dates in September, and he cited a statute that says the KHRC should seek to maintain traditional race dates. Beck also referenced that statute in comments following the meeting, indicating that the commission is not likely to discard the request by Kentucky Downs without strong arguments.

If Churchill were to decline September race dates in 2015 because Kentucky Downs would be racing at the same time, the decision could have a significant financial impact on the company beyond the abandoned September meet.

By statute, tracks in Kentucky are allowed to charge higher takeout rates if their annual average ontrack handle falls below a $1.2 million threshold, and Churchill’s average ontrack handle number did not fall below the threshold until it added the September dates to its typical spring-summer and November complement. Without the September dates dragging down the number, Churchill may have to lower its takeout rates.

While the September dates remained unsettled, the dates committee did approve the dates for Keeneland and Turfway Park. Keeneland requested its typical spring complement of 15 April dates, but it requested 20 dates in October to accommodate the Breeders’ Cup two-day event, scheduled for the track next year on Oct. 30-31. The October meet would run from Oct. 2-31, on the usual five-day-a-week schedule, but Keeneland would not run on Sunday, Oct. 25, or Wednesday, Oct. 28, in the week prior to the Breeders’ Cup, contrary to a calendar distributed last week.

Vince Gabbert, Keeneland’s chief operating officer, said the October schedule would allow Keeneland to hold its traditional preps for the Breeders’ Cup on its opening weekend, four weeks before the event. Gabbert thanked Churchill Downs for allowing the track to retain the full first weekend in October, and he then said that Keeneland supported Churchill’s September schedule.