Kentucky racing’s dueling grounds

The recent uneasiness over scheduling September race dates in Kentucky is likely to continue this year. The process begins again Tuesday with the meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s dates committee.

The desires of Kentucky Downs, with unparalleled purses fueled by slot-like gambling proceeds and only a handful of race dates to pay it out, will likely duel again with Churchill Downs over the tracks’ overlapping dates in the year’s ninth month.

Dueling is an analogy both racetrack operators likely will hate, but it works – Kentucky Downs formerly was Dueling Grounds, named so because of its proximity to the duels of Tennesseans who crossed into Kentucky to settle scores.

This modern duel (minus weapons) pits racetracks and could be summarized thusly: Should Kentucky Downs, with its super gigantic purses and low takeouts that thrill horseplayers, get more days or do the interests of Churchill Downs need protecting? The Central Avenue track doesn’t have the super gigantic purses and has higher takeouts, but it serves as the training facility for many of the Kentucky Downs horses and loses turf runners to Kentucky Downs.

KHRCLogoLast year after much bickering and debate, a compromise was reached. But the most recent results at Churchlll show a 14.41 percent decline in total September wagering as Churchill moved its would-be final weekend to Thursdays to accommodate Keeneland Race Course. It also raced one less day, meaning the average daily handle fell 6.63 percent. Meanwhile, betting at Kentucky Downs increased – 6.3 percent by the racing commission’s count (a Kentucky Downs press release had a higher handle figure. Regardless, despite awful weather that led to canceled and rescheduled races, Kentucky Downs saw a gain.)

It’s easy to say, ‘screw Churchill,’ and a number of vocal horseplayers do because the track increased takeouts in 2014.

But, for regulators, it’s nowhere close to that simple. American racing is predominately on dirt. Kentucky Downs is a grass-only track. For all the invective against Churchill, it still offers more in purse money than Turfway Park, which previously held the bulk of September dates. Churchill is open for training, has both grass and dirt surfaces, and long-term stabling.

Kentucky Downs might be able to exist and succeed without Churchill Downs. But it’s without question that Kentucky Downs’ racing product benefits from Churchill. Horsemen last year said they’d like to see a solution that accommodates both.

The problem for regulators is, there’s only so many days. The commission will have until the end of the month to decide.

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