10/23/2012 4:11PM

Kentucky racing commission approves September dates for Churchill Downs

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The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday approved a September race meet at Churchill Downs in 2013 as part of an overhaul of the state’s racing calendar that also included a dramatic reduction in winter dates at Turfway Park.

The September Churchill meet will be the first held by the racetrack during the month in modern times. The late-summer/early-fall, good-weather dates had previously been held by Turfway Park, but because of that track’s struggles to remain relevant on the state’s circuit over the past 10 years, commission officials urged Churchill to apply for the dates, leading Turfway to concede September to the Louisville track.

As a result, Churchill will now run three meets in 2013, in late spring and early summer, in September, and in November. The track has said that the September meet will distribute at least $240,000 a day in purses, up significantly from the $100,000 that Turfway distributed on average this year in September.

The vote on Tuesday on the 2013 racing calendar was expected to be a formality after weeks of negotiations between tracks and horsemen and a vote last week by a committee to recommend approval. Between the committee vote and Tuesday, however, officials of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association sent a letter to Turfway threatening to withhold permission for the track to simulcast unless it restored six days of live racing in February, leading to some heated exchanges just before the vote was called.

The commission’s chairman, Robert Beck, who normally conducts the meetings in a convivial, efficient manner, pointedly chided horsemen’s officials for threatening to withhold permission to simulcast, saying in a direct, raised voice that “you’re going to have to decide whether or not you’re going to be obstructionist,” just before ending all discussion of the calendar and abruptly calling for a vote. The vote passed unanimously.

Earlier in the meeting, Rick Hiles, the horsemen association’s president, had asked the commission to add the six dates to the February calendar, saying that his organization had determined that horsemen would suffer from a four-week gap in live racing dates following the first weekend in the month. When the commission asked Turfway’s general manager, Chip Bach, whether he agreed with Hiles, Bach said that the track would be open to racing the second weekend in February as well, and asked the commission to add two dates.

Then, following the commission’s official vote, both Hiles and Bach said that they had agreed to adding the other four dates requested by the horsemen’s association as “optional dates,” to be run if the track’s handle in January and February was up over last year. The commission passed the agreement as an amendment to the calendar.

The calendar also includes four “optional dates” for Turfway in March and four optional dates for Churchill in September. Track officials said that the decision to hold the live racing dates will depend on handle and field-size trends.