07/06/2004 12:00AM

Sharp declines at spring meet

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Business at the 53-day Churchill Downs spring meet that ended Monday showed substantial across-the-board declines, leading track officials to call once again for a way to compete more effectively against other forms of gambling in neighboring states.

Average ontrack attendance and handle were down by 13 and 9 percent, respectively, from the 2003 spring meet, which had 52 days of racing, while average all-sources handle was down 10 percent.

Churchill officials blamed poor weather and concerns from fans regarding the ongoing renovation of Churchill facilities for some of the declines. The $121 million construction project is expected to be completed in time for the 2005 spring meet.

"The results of the meet reflect a mixture of short- and long-term challenges facing our track," said the track's president, Steve Sexton.

Ontrack attendance averaged 11,955, down from the 13,773 from last spring, while ontrack handle averaged $1,643,596, down from $1,801,580. All ontrack totals include business conducted at the nearby Trackside simulcast facility, except for the three-day Kentucky Derby weekend (April 30 and May 1-2). Trackside was open throughout the meet.

Offtrack numbers also reflected a noticeable decline in business. Handle from offtrack outlets averaged $9,607,957 per card, a decrease of 10 percent from last year. Combined with ontrack wagering, the all-sources handle averaged $11,251,553 per day.

Even in the face of the decreases, purses remained robust, even rising above levels from last year. Gross purses were nearly $24.5 million, up 7 percent, while the daily average was $461,573, up 5 percent.

Sexton noted that besides the ongoing construction and wet weather, which plagued the 130th Kentucky Derby on May 1 and virtually the entire week leading up to Memorial Day, perhaps a more pressing problem is the lack of means that would allow Churchill to combat its nearby competitors in the gambling business. The Caesars riverboat just across the Ohio River in southern Indiana continues to flourish, and a Clarksville, Ind., offtrack wagering outlet became operational earlier this year.

"Even as we look to the excitement that will surround the opening of the new clubhouse next spring, those long-term competitive pressures within our home market and our industry will continue to create major concerns for the health and vitality of racing at Churchill Downs," Sexton said.

On the racetrack, Rafael Bejarano won his first Churchill riding title by finishing with 81 winners, 27 more than 34-time Churchill champion Pat Day.

Steve Asmussen used a sensational closing weekend to win the training title with 35 wins, three more than Dale Romans, who had won or tied for the spring title the last four years. Ken and Sarah Ramsey, with 19 wins, extended their track record by leading the standings for the ninth straight meet.