09/04/2012 12:59PM

Turfway Park opens 16-day fall meet on Thursday night

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Turfway Park opens a 16-day fall meet Thursday evening amid perhaps the most trying of circumstances in the 53-year history of the northern Kentucky track, with no stakes on the schedule and a worsening plight in the fight for gambling dollars.

With its closest neighboring state, Ohio, ready to join Indiana in bringing casinos to the competitive landscape, Turfway is in a bare-bones survival mode. After reviving its once-proud Kentucky Cup series last fall following a one-year hiatus, Turfway officials announced last month that no stakes at all will be run this fall.

“It was a terribly tough decision to eliminate all our fall stakes,” said Lee Dillard, who is serving as interim general manager in the wake of the departure of longtime track president Bob Elliston, now an executive with the Breeders’ Cup. “After a long look at how we could do things, it was the only way we could maintain the integrity of our overnight purse structure.”

What remains are purses that are struggling to remain viable versus comparable tracks such as Hoosier Park, Presque Isle Downs, and Mountaineer Park. Last fall, with the Kentucky Cup purses infused by sponsorship money from WinStar Farm, per-day purses at the 16-day meet averaged nearly $140,000. Purses this fall are expected to average about $135,000. All-sources handle last fall averaged just more than $1.7 million per program, with only a little more than $100,000 of that wagered ontrack per card. Field size at the Polytrack-only racetrack averaged 8.4 horses per race.

Dillard said one of the marketing strategies being implemented this fall is to “drive admissions to the property,” and one way Turfway is attempting to do so through a variety of promotions, including Double Down Dollar Fridays with live music and special prices on beer and concessions. The first Saturday is a fan appreciation day.

Dillard, 45, has worked for about 12 years for Caesars Entertainment, the main parent company of Turfway. He comes most recently from the Cleveland area, where he was an official at another Caesars property, Thistledown.

As will be the case throughout the meet, the nine-race Thursday opener is filled with claiming and maiden races, with a $23,000 first-level allowance serving as the nominal feature. Half of the purse for that one-mile feature is restricted to horses eligible to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund.

The four-week meet runs on a Thursday-to-Sunday schedule through Sept. 30, after which the Keeneland fall meet opens Oct. 5. In the meantime, Kentucky Downs will open a six-day meet this coming Saturday, and unlike in prior years, the two Saturdays that overlap (Sept. 8 and 15) will not be melded cards between Turfway and Kentucky Downs, according to Turfway racing secretary Rick Leigh.

Mike Maker, who has dominated the trainers’ ranks in recent years even with his “off” string of runners, would have to be considered the favorite to repeat again as leading trainer at Turfway. The jockey colony will include familiar names such as Victor Lebron and Marcelino Pedroza while also getting the occasional appearance from some who will be in for Kentucky Downs while awaiting Keeneland, including Kent Desormeaux and David Cohen.

First post opening night and all other Thursdays and Fridays is 6 p.m. Eastern, a half-hour later than what had been the norm in recent years. Saturday and Sunday post remains 1:10 p.m.