09/01/2002 11:00PM

Job is pleasing fans and pleading with legislature


FLORENCE, Ky. - Bob Elliston has a burly build that isn't exactly suited to a high-wire act - yet surely there are aspiring acrobats in the world who would envy his talent for delicate balancing.

As the president of Turfway Park, Elliston is charged with these contradictory duties: Tell the dwindling number of horseplayers who remain loyal to Turfway that their track is a lively place with a viable future, but also tell the politicians of Kentucky that the track is doomed if the state does not afford an avenue of financial relief.

"It's an extremely tough act, no doubt about it," said Elliston, now in his fourth year at the Turfway helm. "There are two masters to serve."

Since riverboat casinos in Indiana and full-card simulcasting in Ohio began operating in the tri-state region in the mid-1990's, business at Turfway has been on a steady slide. Net revenue is down to about half that of 1995, a scary trend by anyone's standard. Elliston and many other leaders in the Kentucky Thoroughbred industry believe they have a tool at their disposal to stem the bleeding - alternative gaming, or slots machines, at state racetracks - but with the failure of a slots bill to make it out of committee in the Kentucky General Assembly earlier this year, Elliston has little choice but to wage daily war against the status quo.

So once again, as Turfway opens its 22-day fall meet Wednesday night, Elliston is trying to sound optimistic in the face of what he acknowledges to be a rugged situation.

"In our message to the fans, we hope we keep them interested in coming out to the track," said Elliston. "There are still plenty of positives at Turfway. At the same time, we have to speak candidly to our legislators, and that is to tell them Turfway may not always be here if circumstances continue as they are."

Elliston said the $600,000 in awards that fans have been given through Turfway's FastTrack rewards program during the last two years is a primary example of the track's commitment to keep customers satisfied. For the fall meet, an outdoor beer garden has been built to attract young fans, and admission is now free to all areas of the track.

The free admission policy, an outgrowth of dwindling attendance, resulted in several layoffs for full-time and seasonal personnel "to basically make it a financial wash for us," said Elliston. "Obviously the benefit to the fans is they can now come in our doors for free, like they do when they go to a riverboat or a restaurant or to River Downs for simulcasting."

The sobering fact remains, however, that on many nights, Turfway will be filled with empty seats. Perhaps what frustrates Elliston more than anything is that Turfway, with its particular mix of corporate owners, is highly equipped to cater to far more customers than those currently being served.

Keeneland is the managing partner in a group that also includes subsidiaries of Harrah's and GTech.

"We've got the tremendous marketing resources that Harrah's brings to the table," said Elliston. "We've got the technological orientation with GTech, and we've got horse savvy from Keeneland. Yet we don't have the volume of customers to maximize all of our huge potential. It's like we're shooting a gnat with a shotgun."