09/27/2017 2:48PM

Zoccali: Kentucky needs a new Standardbred track with a true purpose

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Recently it was announced that Churchill Downs and Keeneland Racecourse were teaming up to apply for licenses to open two new “racing” facilities in the commonwealth of Kentucky.

One of those facilities would be a quarter-horse racetrack in Corbin, the other a standardbred facility in Oak Grove.

While the prospect of a name like Churchill Downs or Keeneland operating a standardbred facility has appeal on the surface, the potential plan for the “racino” gives me pause.  I refer to this plan as “potential” because the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has stated publicly that they will not be addressing any new racing applications for new facilities at this time.  That gives the horsemen in the state ample time to perform their due diligence into this project.  Eventually, this proposal will be heard before the commission.

First and foremost, this move is not about Churchill or Keeneland investing in the sport of harness racing.  It’s not about creating jobs in that industry or contributing to the breeding industry or open space.  The move is about acquiring a license to operate an historical racing facility.  I arrive at this conclusion because despite this racino operating 365 days per year, Churchill Downs is proposing the harness track will race between 12 and 15 dates per year.  This gives me cause for concern, as it should the entire harness racing industry.

Any entity in racing will use a racing license to get a form of alternative gaming.  They have done so for years.  But that same entity must be required by the horsemen to support the racing product at their facility.  Putting forth 12 to 15 race dates each year does not come close to accomplishing that.

I admit, I don’t have any idea how much revenue will be generated by this racino, which will house historical racing, to support a racing product.  However, I do know that this location was picked out due to its close proximity to Nashville, Tennessee and is an attempt to gain gaming market share in an area that at present Kentucky Downs has to itself.  That concerns me, because it brings about a reasonable question as to how this will help harness racing?

Presently there is a grand total of 68 dates of harness racing in Kentucky.  Eight of those dates are grand circuit racing at The Red Mile, leaving only 60 dates of overnight harness racing for Kentucky horsemen.  Is another 12 to 15 dates enough to impact the industry?  Absolutely not.  The fact that the proposal includes so few dates of racing scares me on another level.  Are Churchill and Keeneland planning to use some of the gaming revenue at this property to help fund purses at their own thoroughbred facilities, leaving only a pittance for the harness community?  This should be at the forefront of the standardbred horsemen’s minds in Kentucky.

The Midwest is currently experiencing a bit of renaissance in the harness racing industry.  Clearly Ohio has made its mark thanks to revenue from expanded gaming while Indiana is also prospering of late, hosting a very competitive sire stakes circuit and the Breeders Crown while witnessing horses bred in Indiana becoming superstars on the Grand Circuit.

My plea to the horsemen in Kentucky is to do their best to make the most of this opportunity.  Demand to see the forecasted financials that this property will produce and make a reasonable request as to what share of that revenue will help support the racing at the property.

There have been very few details made public regarding this proposal.  For example, I have not even seen what sized racetrack will be built, what kind of grandstand will be erected, how many people it will hold, etc.  When you tie all of these facts together, I am concerned this proposed racetrack would do next to nothing to help the harness industry in Kentucky.

Kentucky doesn’t need a short meet that feeds into the Red Mile.  They need a reasonable meet including solid overnight races to help the Kentucky breeding program continue to move in the right direction.  There is a lot of potential that can be fulfilled with this project if it is done correctly and I would implore the Kentucky standardbred horsemen to demand a reasonable meet that can help support the harness community in the state of Kentucky.  After all, a meet cannot be operated without a contractual agreement with horsemen. I don’t want to see the horsemen of Kentucky taken advantage of by a company with a business agenda that will use harness racing to line their own pockets while simultaneously taking business away from their competitor, Kentucky Downs.  Make no mistake; that is what this proposal is all about.