Kentucky racetrackers in dire straits

Six of the state of Kentucky's racetracks showed an unprecedented united front this week at a joint press conference focused on the precarious state of racing in the heartland of US horseracing and to appeal for the legalisation of slot machines.

Kentucky's state government infamously - and unsuccessfully - tried to highjack international Internet gambling domain names last year in moves to protect its extensive land gambling industry interests.

The Racing Post reports that eleven of the 12 racing states nearest to Kentucky allow other gaming at their racetracks, resulting in bigger and more competitive purses and more generous breeders' prizes.

And apparently Kentucky, which describes itself as the horse capital of the world, is struggling to compete.

At the press conference this week, Nick Nicholson, Keeneland's chief executive, said: "We are in serious jeopardy and, if no action takes place and we lose our racing circuit and the prominence of our breeding industry, we do not want anyone to be surprised."

Churchill Downs chief executive Bob Evans pointed out that, normally, on a Wednesday, there would be racing but a shortage of runners had led to the scrapping of Wednesday fixtures. Evans warned: "If you think it is bad now, it is only going to get worse. As time goes on, slot subsidised purses are going to pull more horsemen out of Kentucky.

"We can't wait any longer," he added. "Even after legislation is passed it will take time to get slots operating; meanwhile the barn door has been left open and we are finding our horses in other states."

The Racing Post report goes on to detail the adverse impact which additional gambling at neighbouring state racetracks is having on Kentucky, with Kentucky racing execs underlining the dangers that this represents.

Bob Elliston, chief executive of Turfway Park, said: "In the ten years I have been at Turfway Park we have invested over $10 million and we've lost money every year.

"There was a time when, day in, day out, we had strong field sizes. That is no longer the case. At our spring meet we were unable to fill races on multiple occasions.

"The reason is the opportunities for horsemen to earn more money at Presque Isle Downs (a racino in Pennsylvania that opened in 2007) that, overnight, offered $30 million in purses, and at Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park.

"Thirteen of the top 15 trainers at Indiana Downs are based in Kentucky, but they are now racing outside Kentucky. Between now and September we will have to sit down with the horsemen and look at dramatic purse cuts and look at reduced days."

Joe Costa, chief executive of The Red Mile, a harness racing track, described a situation of "absolute devastation," and Corey Johnson, president of Kentucky Downs, an exclusively turf track, explained that they had been forced to reduce their live racing programme from six days to four.

Rick Hiles, speaking on behalf of owners and trainers, warned:"If we lose two or three of our tracks it will affect Churchill Downs enormously. Without year-round racing in Kentucky, horsemen will not stay here. I already know of big owners talking of relocating. Mares are already leaving for states with big breeding incentives."

The businessmen urged the state government to legalise the operation of slot machines at Kentucky's racetracks to boost revenues and enable the state to again become competitive in its horserace prizes and events.

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