03/02/2012 2:37PM

Elliston calls Turfway Park purse cuts 'least intrusive way to go'


The hits keep coming. The week after the Kentucky legislature turned down yet another effort from the racing industry and its partners to allow casino gaming in the state to come to a popular vote, there was bad news for Turfway Park, which has seemed to move ever closer to the brink of extinction with a multitude of factors working against it.

Purses at what remains of the winter-spring meet have been slashed 25 percent, effective Saturday, and with cuts to the stakes schedule, the only stakes remaining during the meet are for 3-year-olds. And that’s just the short-term bad news for Turfway.

Turfway president Bob Elliston said Friday morning that “we are doing all we can” under dire circumstances, adding, ominously, that he is “not in a position to forecast something beyond this race meet.”

Perhaps more than any other track in America, Turfway is under siege from the proliferation of casino gaming. With Ohio having approved gaming, a major casino some 15 minutes away in downtown Cincinnati is scheduled to become operational next year, piling on to the competition that has been in place for more than a decade in the other tri-state neighbor, Indiana.

In addition, competition for horseflesh has left Turfway struggling mightily as purse increases recently were announced for tracks in New York, Florida, and Arkansas.

“Maybe the most ironic news is that a Kentucky-based company is investing upward of $200 million in a competing venture just across the border,” said Elliston, alluding to the Thursday announcement by Churchill Downs Inc. that the company is partnering with Delaware North in a new gaming company centered on the Lebanon Raceway harness facility.

Elliston, long at the forefront of efforts to get gaming approved in the state, does not necessarily seem resigned to shuttering Turfway, but he does not know how much more bad news the track can take. He said the latest move to cut purses came after “we’d evaluated cutting more stakes, cutting races themselves, cutting race days themselves.”

“There was no good course,” he said. “We felt like this was the least intrusive way to go. Against the backdrop of all these other tracks raising purses and everything else going on, we’re in a really tough spot right now. It’s very frustrating, to say the least.”

Spiral Day remains bright spot

One bright spot that remains at the winter-spring meet, which runs through April 1, is Vinery Racing Spiral Day, set for March 24. Turfway opted to preserve all four stakes for 3-year-olds on that day: the $500,000 Spiral, the $100,000 Bourbonette, the $75,000 Rushaway, and the $50,000 Hansel.

The Grade 3 Spiral remains vibrant for at least two compelling reasons: the race drew 166 nominations, an increase of more than 25 percent over last year, and more notably, it was won last year by the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom.

◗ Turfway is hosting the 11th annual Charity Night at the Tables after the races March 17. The event raises funds for a number of hometown charities. Tickets are $75 and are available at turfwaypark.ticketleap.com or by calling (859) 371-0200.

◗ Mike Maker and Victor Lebron were the leading trainer and jockey, respectively, at the holiday meet in December, and they’re well on their way to winning titles at the winter-spring meet, too. Into Friday night action, Maker led the standings with 22 wins, while Lebron easily led all riders with 54 wins.

◗ The stable areas at both Churchill and its Trackside training annex in Louisville will reopen Friday, March 9, after the customary winter break of about 10 weeks. Training over the track can begin Saturday.

◗ Nominations have been released by Churchill for the May 4 Kentucky Oaks, while Keeneland has released nominations for the April 7 Ashland Stakes and April 14 Blue Grass Stakes.