LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - No one can match the rich traditions and pageantry of thoroughbred racing at Churchill Downs. But in the 21st century, track officials say that is not enough to stay on top.
Churchill Downs and Keeneland, the state's top horse racing venues, are going into business together to build two new tracks. The move is intended to counter economic pressures from casino gambling in other states. Casino gambling is not legal in Kentucky.
"In many cases, those states also operate horse tracks,"John Asher, Vice President of Racing Communications at Churchill Downs said. "And the purses at those horse tracks have been made more effective, more attractive by the casino revenue."
Churchill Downs has been feeling the pressure since the late 90s, when casino gambling started in neighboring states. Since then, there have been fewer days of racing and smaller purses. Smaller purses make racing less attractive to top breeders and trainers. Churchill Downs Chief Executive Officer Bill Carstanjen addressed the problem in a press release.
"Horse racing is a $4 billion industry in the Commonwealth that creates thousands of jobs, strengthens our statewide economy and attracts millions of visitors from around the globe," Carstanjen said. "Churchill Downs and Keeneland share a deep commitment to making Kentucky's horse racing industry the very best version of itself, and the new racing facilities…will help us achieve this by generating much needed funds to increase purses and breeders' incentives."
One of the tracks will be built in southeastern Kentucky in Corbin and feature limited schedules of quarter horse racing. The second track will be built
in southwestern Kentucky in Oak Grove and will feature harness racing.
Both tracks are expecting to offer year-round wagering on electronic Historical Racing, which allows players to handicap and wager on races that have already been run.
The machines have a closer resemblance to slots than actual handicapping but have proven popular a profitable since starting in Kentucky in 2011. According to figures from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the amount of money bet on Historical Racing games through 2016 exceeded $1.877 billion. Expanding this new source of revenue could lead to higher purses for races at Churchill Downs and Keeneland.
"We think this is a way to counteract competitive pressures from other states that have benefited from purses that are fattened by casino revenues," Asher said. "We don't have that option in the commonwealth of Kentucky the way they do in Indiana, the way they do in West Virginia, the way they do in New York or other states that compete with Kentucky race tracks in terms of horses, in terms of purse levels, in terms of things that would lure owners and trainers to those respective tracks."
Officials filed for state licenses that would allow the proposed tracks to operate. Corey Johnsen, President of Kentucky Downs race track in Franklin, Kentucky criticized the plan. The track proposed for Oak Grove would be in close proximity to Kentucky Downs.
"We are disappointed at the announcement of Churchill Downs and Keeneland's plans to pursue a racetrack license in Oak Grove," Johnsen said. "Nashville is the primary market for Kentucky Downs. A track a short drive away in Oak Grove would provide undue competition to Kentucky Downs' already-established and successful historical horse racing, simulcasting and live-racing operations."