10/26/2009 11:00PM

Kentucky approves slimmer 2010 schedule


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved a 2010 live racing schedule that pares 33 dates from the number of live cards the state's racetracks held this year, with the brunt of the reduction coming from Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.

Although the schedule is a 24.3 percent reduction from the number of live dates Kentucky's five tracks requested for 2009, the schedule the commission approved will preserve a year-round circuit in Kentucky by paring live dates from within a track's typical race week. Turfway Park, for example, requested 81 live racing dates in 2010, down from its request of 114 for 2009, and got to that number by eliminating Wednesday and Thursday racing in January and February, and by cutting Wednesday racing in March. Churchill Downs is dropping 11 dates from its 2009 request, principally by eliminating Wednesday racing for its spring meet.

Approval of the racing calendar occurred at a meeting in which racetracks sparred with several commission members on proposals to cut off betting at zero minutes to post and to require racetracks to honor bets regardless of whether the bets were transmitted into the parimutuel pools. The proposals were introduced at the meeting by a subcommittee of the commission that has been studying ways to address issues revolving around the integrity of the parimutuel betting system.

After an hour of debate on the proposal to stop betting at zero minutes to post - in which racetrack officials contended that handle would drop by more than 10 percent as a consequence - the commission's chairman, Robert Beck, asked commission members to consider holding a public meeting in the next 30 days to discuss the issues before the commission schedules another vote. Although several commissioners appeared reluctant to allow the votes to be delayed, the commission voted to endorse Beck's proposal.

Commissioner Elizabeth Lavin, who is one of the more active members of the commission, said during the debate that she found it difficult to determine how to vote on the proposals without further study.

"Those of you who know me know that I have very few gray areas," Lavin said. "But I see a lot of gray area here."

Racing officials said during the meeting that the proposals that the commission were considering would have dramatic negative impacts on business at a time when the tracks are struggling financially. As part of the argument for the reduction in dates, for example, racetracks in Kentucky have contended that they must cut racing dates because they are having difficulty filling race cards because of competition from tracks in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and West Virginia that use subsidies from slot machines to prop up purses and extend live race meets.

Kentucky racetracks are also involved in an aggressive, highly organized lobbying campaign to convince legislators and the public that Kentucky racetracks need slot machines in order to counter effectively the competitive pressures presented by the subsidized tracks in neighboring states. If slots are legalized, tracks and horsemen would potentially share in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually.

Racing experts generally believe that the sport has too many live racing dates, especially at a time when the foal crop is falling, horse owners are leaving the business because they are being squeezed by the recession and high training costs, and handle is declining by double digits annually. A cut in race dates, it is held, could make the sport stronger by increasing purses and driving up average field sizes, which makes races more attractive to bettors.

Kentucky's tracks had originally requested 273 live race dates for 2009, but that schedule was trimmed to 239 after Churchill and Ellis Park went to the commission earlier this year to request permission to drop days. Churchill received approval to cut seven days from its spring meet, and Ellis received approval to cut its 48-day late summer meet to 23 days. Ellis later added four more days back to the schedule.

Ellis and Churchill both went to the commission to request the cuts shortly before the Kentucky legislature went into special session to consider a bill to legalize slot machines at racetracks. The legislation failed in the Senate.

A special session may be called again this year if a Democrat wins a December special election to fill the seat of Dan Kelly, a Republican senator who resigned on Monday after Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who supports slots, appointed Kelly to a judgeship in the state. Officials for the horse racing lobby and the state's Democratic Party supported the appointment as a way possibly to cut into the Republican Party's majority in the senate, which sits at 19-17 with Kelly's departure. Republicans have generally opposed legislation authorizing slots at tracks.

Ellis Park requested 27 dates, with a Friday-through-Sunday racing schedule from July 10 through Sept. 6. Keeneland made its typical request for two three-week race meets in the spring and fall.

* In other action, the commission approved Turfway's request to offer pick four and trifecta bets with a 50-cent minimum. In addition, the commission approved a rule that will allow regulators to rule that a licensee has filed a "frivolous" appeal, in an attempt to dissuade jockeys and trainers from filing appeals to delay the onset of a suspension. Under the new rule, if the commission rules an appeal is frivolous, it can add days to a suspension or increase the fine during the appeals process.