10/21/2014 3:16PM

Kentucky dates approved for 2015 - but not without drama


The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday approved a full slate of 2015 dates for the state’s racetracks, including a bloc in September that required an agreement between Churchill Downs and Kentucky Downs to resolve a dispute that had led Churchill to threaten to withdraw its September dates requests.

The dispute between the two tracks caused one commission member, Foster Northrup, to vote against approval, but the rest of the commission voted in favor. Northrup, a racetrack veterinarian who is one of the more active members of the commission, had said at a dates committee meeting earlier in the day that he was opposed to Churchill and Kentucky Downs holding two overlapping Saturday cards in mid-September, and that he wanted to signal his desire to have the commission and tracks work out a better compromise in the future that would avoid such overlaps, possibly by Kentucky Downs running its dates late in August and early in September.

Though Keeneland officials did not object in person to the dates proposals, the company released a statement following the commission meeting that also signaled its dissatisfaction with Kentucky Downs. This year, Kentucky Downs requested seven race dates, two more than the track has run in each of the previous two years, and Keeneland’s statement appeared to be a warning flare to the commission that it would object to the track running deeper into September, which might impact its own fall meet in future years.

“While we accept the decision of the race dates committee for the coming year, the commission needs to know that we will vigorously oppose any effort to make that schedule a template for future years,” the Keeneland statement read.

In the resolution to the dispute, Kentucky Downs will run on Sept. 5, 10, 12, 16, and 19. The Sept. 5 date, Labor Day weekend, overlaps with Ellis Park. The Sept. 12 and Sept. 19 dates will overlap with live cards at Churchill, which dropped one of its live-date requests, on Sept. 10, as part of the resolution. Churchill will run 11 live race dates in September, spread out from Sept. 11 to Sept. 26.

Live handle at Kentucky Downs this year was up 24 percent, according to commission records, while handle at the Churchill September meet was down 16 percent. This year, Kentucky Downs, which races only on the turf, distributed an average of just under $1 million in purses each day, using funds raised by slot-machine-like devices at the track. Churchill has declined to operate the devices.

Northrup said after the meeting that Kentucky Downs, which averaged over 10 horses per race, is negatively impacting the Churchill meet and, possibly, the Keeneland meet, because it draws the same class of horses as the two meets. That hadn’t been a problem prior to 2013, when Churchill took over the September dates from Turfway Park, because Turfway attracted a different class of horses and did not have a turf course.

“The horse population [for Kentucky Downs] is mainly coming from Churchill and Keeneland, and it’s potentially taking horses out of the running for the Keeneland fall meet,” Northrup said.

Some horseplayer groups have rallied around Kentucky Downs’s effort to run more race dates, citing the large fields and low takeouts at the track. When the dates requests were first released, one horseplayer group asked other bettors to send letters to the commission supporting the track’s effort to add race dates. The same groups have expressed dissatisfaction with Churchill for raising its takeout rates earlier this year.