07/15/2004 11:00PM

Trackside unable to take bets for third day


Late afternoon on Friday, power remained off at Churchill Downs's simulcast wagering facility, Trackside, following powerful thunderstorms in Kentucky and southern Indiana on Tuesday evening. This forced the cancellation of betting at Trackside on Friday for the third consecutive day.

The loss of wagering at Trackside, which regularly has the highest handle of any offtrack betting location in the state, has dramatically reduced in-state wagering on Ellis Park races and the profits the track generates from such wagers.

"This is considerably different than with an out-of-state location, where we might charge 3 percent of the handle," said Paul Kuerzi, general manager at Ellis Park. "With this being in state, we split the revenues 50-50."

Ellis Park has raced as scheduled since the storm. Kuerzi said he had doubts whether Ellis would race on Wednesday, the day following the storm. With electricity out at Churchill, Ellis lost its wagering hub until a telephone link was established and generator power allowed it to begin operating an hour before post time for the first race.

According to the track, if the hub not been re-established, betting would have been shut down at outlets across Kentucky, aside from Keeneland, which has an independent tote system.

Ellis then had complications through the Wednesday card that resulted in a half-hour mutuel delay approaching the seventh race. This led Kentucky Downs, one of its in-state wagering outlets, to close by mid-afternoon.

Kuerzi said Ellis was able to avoid damage or a loss in power from the storm. He said ontrack business dropped 10 percent Wednesday, due in part to the mid-card delay.

John Asher, vice president of communications at Churchill Downs, said he had no timetable for when power would be fully restored at Trackside. He said the electricity came back on Friday afternoon in the main facility at Churchill Downs, which is located several miles away from Trackside.

Louisville Gas and Electric, which supplies electricity to the Louisville area, lost service to more than 110,000 customers following the storms, which downed power lines across the city with winds clocked at 70 miles per hour. LG&E had re-established service to most residences and businesses by Friday.

Asher called the loss of power at Trackside a tremendous loss for "a major economic engine for the entire state." He estimated that handle at Trackside on a weekday might average $300,000 or $400,000. Weekend handle would be much higher, he said.

Even if Trackside remained without power over the weekend, Asher said he doubted simulcast wagering could be shifted to the main facility at Churchill.

Benefiting from Trackside's closing was the Clarksville OTB, located not far from downtown Louisville in Indiana.

Tom Cade, manager of the Clarksville OTB, said the OTB briefly lost power from the storm Tuesday night but that it was quickly restored. He said Clarksville's business had more than doubled over the past few days.

"This has been a blessing in disguise," he said. "It put [Trackside] out of commission, and it's letting people see what's going on over here."

Regular Trackside customers who attended Clarksville OTB were unable to bet on Ellis Park. Clarksville OTB, owned by Indiana Downs, is not sent the signal due

to a dispute with the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

The power outages in Louisville have affected more than Kentucky's tracks. It has also impacted revenues for the state, which taxes money wagered. Ultimately, a drop in handle could also affect purses.

Horsemen in the Louisville area have also felt the storm's effects. Trainer Paul McGee said his barn at Churchill did not regain electricity or phone service until Friday morning.

Training hours at Churchill, which normally begin at 5:15 a.m. in near darkness, have been delayed approximately an hour in recent days because lights could not be used to illuminate the track, nor could a horn be sounded in case of an ontrack emergency.

Allowance races lack horses

Less than two weeks into the Ellis Park meet, the track is adjusting to its six-day, 60-races a week schedule.

The first Monday of racing this meet was slow, Kuerzi said. He expects business on Mondays to rise, as patrons become accustomed to racing at Ellis on a day that in past years had been dark. The openings of Saratoga and Del Mar should also help attendance, he said.

Field size has dropped this meet, as expected, with the move from racing five to six days per week. The track is averaging about 8.6 starters per race, compared to last year when it averaged more than nine starters per race, racing secretary Doug Bredar said. Allowance races, in particular, have struggled to attract large fields, when they have filled at all. Sunday's card, for example, does not include a single allowance or stakes race.

Bredar said he is pleased by how entries have gone, but is troubled by a large number of scratches at Ellis and other Kentucky meets.

For example, in the featured ninth race at Ellis on Thursday, an optional claimer run over a fast track, a field of eight was reduced to four.

He said the penalties for scratching a horse are too lenient, which causes some horses to be entered with the goal of "looking for the perfect spot." In Kentucky, a horse can be scratched from a field with more than eight horses without penalty, while in shorter fields, a scratched horse simply cannot be raced for a period of six days, he said.