04/22/2014 1:40PM

No decision on Fair Grounds license renewal

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The Louisiana Racing Commission on Tuesday deferred a decision on whether to renew the license for Churchill Downs’s Fair Grounds racetrack in New Orleans, according to reports, a maneuver that heightens the pressure on the company in the face of harsh criticism from horsemen over its management of the facility.

Along with the state’s other racetracks, Churchill had applied for a 10-year renewal of the Fair Grounds racing license and its offtrack betting parlors. But the commission deferred approving the license Tuesday after two hours of discussion, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Officials of the commission did not immediately respond to requests for comments. In a statement, Tim Bryant, the president of Fair Grounds, said the track has been asked to provide information to the racing commission on the track’s turf course, its marketing, and its “service and backstretch facilities” for a special meeting May 1 to reconsider the license application.

“We look forward to further discussions and continuing to show our commitment to Fair Grounds racing in New Orleans,” Bryant said.

John Asher, a spokesman for Churchill Downs Inc., said the company would have no comment on the commission’s decision as of Tuesday afternoon.

Horsemen based at the track have been highly critical of Churchill’s management of the track over the last several months and have registered specific complaints about the condition of the turf course and the maintenance of the racetrack building. The complaints led to hearings in the state legislature, and last week, the Louisiana House passed a bill by a vote of 94-0 that would require Churchill to use 10 percent of the revenue from its Louisiana slot machines for capital expenditures.

Churchill opposed the legislation, telling legislators that the problems at the track were related to a decline in racing-related revenue in the midst of an industry “depression.” Handle at Fair Grounds was down 11 percent in 2013 compared with 2012, according to the company’s financial statements.

Last year, Churchill had net revenue of $40.1 million from the racing operations at Fair Grounds, down 8 percent from 2012, according to the financial statements. Its net slot-machine revenue in Louisiana in 2013 was $40.9 million, according to the statements, down 2 percent from 2012.

According to the Times-Picayune, Fair Grounds president Tim Bryant told commissioners at the meeting Tuesday that the company planned to install a new video screen in the track’s infield. The screen has been broken for several years, agitating horsemen who have expressed skepticism about Churchill’s commitment to live racing at the track.