05/31/2001 12:00AM

Second track for Indiana approved

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The Indiana Horse Racing Commission Wednesday awarded a group put together by real estate developer Paul Estridge conditional permit to build a $30 million racetrack just outside of Indianapolis.

The commission voted 4-0 to approve the conditional license while pushing aside the objections of Churchill Downs Inc., the majority owner of the state's only racetrack, Hoosier Park.

"By no means was this a no-brainer," said Ed Martin, a commissioner and an owner and breeder, on Thursday. "But I wouldn't have voted for this if I thought we were going to have two sick tracks that eventually would die."

Churchill argued that a second track in Indiana was not only unfeasible, but that its operation would have a debilitating impact on Hoosier and the state's Thoroughbred industry, which has blossomed since Hoosier opened in 1994.

"It's a very young industry, and anything that can disturb it could be very problematic," said Rick Moore, the president of Hoosier Park.

Estridge's group, called Indianapolis Downs, has said that it will accept the commission's conditions, which include opening the track by Dec. 6, 2002. The group has selected a site in Shelby County, about 32 miles south of Hoosier Park in Andersen, for the track.

The group is also expected to open four off-track betting locations, including parlors just across the Ohio River from Churchill Downs and Ellis Park in Kentucky, which are owned by Churchill.

Estridge has sought a racing license for six years, but a variety of proposals have failed to win approval. Last year, the commission rejected his plan for a track just outside of Indianapolis.

Along with splitting the market for year-round simulcasting revenues, Churchill is concerned about sharing a subsidy it receives from a split of the admissions revenues from Indiana's riverboat casinos. In 1999, the latest year in which numbers are available, Churchill received nearly $20 million in direct and indirect payments from the subsidy.

Of that $20 million, $7.4 million went directly to Churchill's bottom line. (The direct subsidy has since been capped at $6.8 million a year.)

In indirect payments in 1999, Churchill received $2.5 million to market Hoosier Park and the state horse racing industry, and $9.9 million to split between Standardbred and Thoroughbred purses. The supplement generated approximately 41 percent of Churchill's purse revenues.

Some Indiana breeders are split on the benefits of a second track, welcoming additional race days to earn purse money and breeders' awards while echoing the concerns of Churchill.

"Certainly there are enough horses to support two tracks," said Jerry Walker, the president of the Indiana Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the owner of Brandywine Stables. "The question is whether there is enough handle, because handle pays for this thing."