08/29/2013 12:05PM

Churchill September meet puts spotlight on Kentucky

Barbara D. Livingston
Orb wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill, which runs a 12-day meet in September, the track’s first meet during the month in modern times.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In another September, horsemen and fans in Kentucky would be looking ahead this week to the opening of the Turfway Park fall meet. The northern Kentucky track was a vibrant place in its heyday. Ontrack fans enjoyed warm evenings outdoors, and the Kentucky Cup series occupied a prominent spot on the national calendar.

But that was then, this is now, and the new face of Kentucky racing in September involves an old one: Churchill Downs, where a 12-day meet begins next Friday, Sept. 6. Tradition and habit being part-and-parcel of racing, surely the greatest challenge for Churchill lies in waking people up to the most substantial change in decades to the Kentucky racing calendar.

“Horsemen are certainly aware that we’re running in September,” Churchill spokesman John Asher said. “But the patrons? Not so much, especially those who aren’t everyday racing fans. We’re going to be out there really pumping hard just to let people know it’s there. That’s probably going to be our biggest challenge − the awareness factor.”

To that end, Churchill has been using traditional means of marketing in recent weeks – billboards, radio, even a full-page ad in the Courier-Journal – as well as Facebook and Twitter to put its customer base on alert. Churchill will run four three-day weekends (Fridays to Sundays) during the month, the first time in its 138-year history it has run a September meet of such duration. Asher said September cards have been held at Churchill during 31 different years since 1875, the most recent being early-September dates during poorly conceived summer meets in 1983-84 and also in 1966-67, before customary dates were established on the circuit.

Churchill assumed the September dates after receiving support from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and also because business at Turfway has declined precipitously for years, with the presence of riverboat casinos in nearby Indiana the biggest of several reasons.

“The old theory that you’re only as strong as your weakest link is true,” said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “It has always been important to have a year-round circuit in Kentucky. The state’s original simulcast legislation intended for us to have some semblance of a circuit once we left Keeneland and Churchill Downs by trying to ensure that the smaller tracks wouldn’t drop off the face of the earth. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way. Dates have kept getting reduced at Turfway and Ellis, and their simulcast products have become increasingly irrelevant.”

Maline said members of the racing commission, working behind the scenes last summer, “approached Churchill with the idea of them running the September dates so as to fill the gap from the end of Ellis (in early September) to the start of Keeneland (in early October). And this is what we have now.”

Originally dubbed the “Homecoming Meet,” a label that has since been abandoned, the new September meet at Churchill brings some concerns that it will not be as well-received by bettors as the spring and fall meets. Churchill is estimating per-day purses at about $407,000, less than the $534,000 paid during the spring meet that ended in late June but well above the $240,000 track officials originally had estimated and the $97,000 Turfway distributed on average last September. A handle surplus from the May 4 Kentucky Derby is being used to help bolster the September purses, Asher said.

Churchill will run mostly dirt races during the 12-day meet; there are far fewer grass races in the condition book than normal, and none at sprint distances. That’s not only to conserve the seven-furlong grass course during this warm-and-dry period, but also because Kentucky Downs in the south-central part of the state is conducting five days of turf-only racing with lucrative purses.

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Kentucky Downs has been something of a bit player in September for about 20 years, most of those as a “sister track” to Turfway. The two shared ownership partners for years and regularly melded Saturday cards into 16- to 18-race marathons. But that arrangement ended shortly after Corey Johnsen and partners bought Kentucky Downs in 2007 and before the most important development at the Franklin, Ky., track came to fruition: the 2011 implementation of Instant Racing machines, which are by far the main funding mechanism behind the massive purses being offered at the upcoming meet. Maiden 2-year-olds eligible to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund can now compete for a whopping $90,000 purse (non-eligibles compete for half that), and a formerly modest stakes schedule has been restored, with the five-race, $1  million Kentucky Turf Cup series set for Sept.  14.

Tia Murphy, in her second year as racing secretary at Kentucky Downs, said this week she has been receiving numerous inquiries from out-of-state horsemen about racing there.

“I had a couple of trainers tell me they wanted to bring their whole stable to Kentucky Downs,” said Murphy, who otherwise works year-round at the other four Kentucky tracks. “But we don’t have overnight stabling there.” Only ship-ins on the day of racing are accommodated.

Meanwhile, at Turfway, off-season training continues every morning over the Polytrack surface, which otherwise will lay dormant during a time of year when fans in that region have been accustomed to the races coming to town. Four months of winter racing at Turfway starts Dec. 1.

“Obviously, we’d prefer to be racing,” said Turfway general manager Chip Bach. “We’re going to miss it, and I think it hasn’t hit home yet with some people. For the most part we’re still trying to make lemonade with lemons by having a bluegrass concert this month and opening up the paddock as an outdoor venue. We’re going to support the Churchill experience from a fan’s perspective and try to find ways for them to have fun at the track as an OTB.”

Back at Churchill, where horses returning from Saratoga, Ellis, and elsewhere are replenishing the stable area following a quiet summer, there is optimism from trainers and jockeys but skepticism from longtime fans who believe customers might not exactly be pouring through the admission gates.

“It’s nice to have 12 days in September at Churchill,” said trainer Dale Romans, who like many trainers will be especially busy in the next couple of weeks while working the Keeneland yearling sales as well as tending to his racetrack business. “The quality of racing and the purses at Turfway got so bad you could hardly run anything there. This still doesn’t fix the many problems we have with Kentucky racing, but it’s a step in the right direction, I’d say.”

“This is definitely going to be a big change, and a good one,” jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. said. “Normally this time of year everyone is winding down from Saratoga, but now I see a lot of guys cranking up for September.”

With Indiana Downs also racing in September, and some Kentucky horsemen continuing to regularly participate there, “the hard part might be trying to figure out where to be on days they overlap,” Hernandez said.

Bill Steiden, a longtime horse owner and a Churchill Downs fan for more than 40 years, said a likely problem with September dates is that local attendance will suffer, although Churchill should be strong in the all-important simulcast market, the source of more than 90 percent of overall handle for any given track. It is reasonable to assume the lack of a major Southern California track being open during September will lead some off-track bettors to the Churchill brand.

“I can’t imagine them drawing big crowds on-track,” Steiden said. “People have too much going on with their kids back in school and football being as popular as it is. Folks in this area just aren’t used to Churchill Downs being open in September. It’s such a busy month.

“But this is still the best choice,” he said. “The alternative of Turfway going further down the drain was just unacceptable, and I think it’s good of Churchill to step up.”

Jim Kamas, another owner and fan, also said he expects attendance to be down. “People aren’t in the habit of going out to the track in September, and I think that will be noticeable, even though Churchill doesn’t release their attendance figures,” he said.

Two of the four Saturdays (Sept. 7 and  28) are Downs After Dark cards with a 6 p.m. Eastern first post, and both will include stakes of interest to serious fans. Night cards have been very popular with younger, casual fans since their implementation in 2009, although Kamas believes attendance will take a hit because of the time of year.

“I can’t see everyone changing their routines to go to the races those nights,” he said.

Asher said Churchill is planning to incorporate the September meet into its annual schedule and already has submitted an application to the commission for the September dates for 2014.

“This is not a stop-gap thing,” he said. “We’re looking into the future with this.”

Churchill Downs 2013 September meet

Dates: Sept. 6-29 (Friday-Sunday with "Downs After Dark" on Sept. 7 and 28)
Post times: Fridays, 1:45 ET; Saturdays (Sept. 7, 28) 6 ET, (Sept. 14, 21) 12:45 ET; Sundays, 12:45 ET

Stakes schedule

Date Race Purse Conditions
Sept. 7 Iroquois (G2) $150,000 2YO, 1 1/16M
Sept. 7 Pocahontas (G2) $150,000 F 2YO, 1 1/16M
Sept. 7 Locust Grove $100,000 F&M 3YO & UP, 1 1/16M
Sept. 7 Ack Ack Handicap (G3) $100,000 3YO & UP, 1M
Sept. 14 Open Mind $100,000 F&M 3YO & UP, 6F
Sept. 21 Dogwood $100,000 F 3YO, 7F
Sept. 28 Homecoming Classic $175,000 3YO & UP, 1 1/8M
Sept. 28 Jefferson Cup (G3) $100,000 3YO, 1M (T)

Kentucky Downs 2013 September meet

Dates: Sept. 7, 11, 14, 18, 25
Post time: 1:35 CT daily

Stakes schedule

Date Race Purse Conditions
Sept. 7 Ladies Sprint $150,000 F&M, 3YO & UP, 6 1/2F (T)
Sept. 7 Ladies Turf $150,000 F&M, 3YO & UP, 1M (T)
Sept. 7 Ladies Marathon $150,000 F&M, 3YO&UP, 1 5/16M (T)
Sept. 14 Juvenile Fillies $150,000 F, 2YO, 7 F (T)
Sept. 14 Juvenile $150,000 2YO, 7F (T)
Sept. 14 Turf Dash $150,000 3YO&UP, 6F (T)
Sept. 14 Franklin-Simpson Mile $150,000 3YO&UP, 1M (T)
Sept. 14 Turf Cup (G3) $400,000 3YO&UP, 1 1/2M (T)

Turfway fall meet figures

Year All-sources handle Racing dates Avg. daily handle Avg. daily purses
2012 $20.5 million 16 $1.3 million $96,874*
2011 $27.2 million 16 $1.7 million $139,419
2010 $28.3 million 16 $1.8 million $107,350*
2009 $40 million 16 $2.2 million $128,001
2008 $42.6 million 22 $1.9 million $153,741
2007 $53.4 million 22 $2.4 million $165,135
2006 $58.6 million 22 $2.7 million $162,610

*no Kentucky Cup series