This is the nightmare scenario for horse racing people when slot machines come to town. Bean counters in corporate offices begin to look at racing operations as an expense, a necessary evil that must be maintained in order to keep the money-churning slots and gambling tables going. They allow facilities used by horsemen and horseplayers to deteriorate, looking at reinvestment in horseracing and marketing horseracing as a money pit.
That's what you might anticipate when a casino company buys a racetrack. It's not what you expect, however, when a company like Churchill Downs – whose very foundation is horse racing – is in charge.
But that's what we've seen from the Louisville, Ky.,-based company in recent years, which is now more a gaming than racing outfit.
Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots is Exhibit A. It has a turf course that doesn't drain properly, a dilapidated stable area, an infield video screen that hasn't worked in years, aging televisions, declining handle, and reduced purses.
Thankfully, there are checks and balances in Louisiana that are reminding Churchill Downs officials they cannot treat horseracing as an unwanted stepchild. First there was the legislation that breezed through the Louisiana House on a 94-0 vote that would require the company to allocate 10 percent of slots revenue to capital improvements on the historic facility. A Senate vote is pending.
Then there is the Louisiana State Racing Commission, which held track president Tim Bryant's feet to the fire during a meeting on Tuesday. The commission's leverage is the very license to conduct live racing, which by state law affords the track owner to operate slot machines in the casino and video poker at off-track betting parlors.
By all accounts (suggested reading is Katherine Terrell at NOLA.com and Ted Lewis at The Advocate), this didn't go well for Churchill Downs. Bryant unveiled an “improvement plan” to the commissioners and they responded with “not good enough.” They want more details and a written plan by the end of next week, when a special commission meeting will be held.
Bryant, whose background is the casino business, was named president of Fair Grounds in 2010. The man he replaced, Austin Miller, was moved to another Churchill Downs-owned property, Calder Casino & Racecourse in Florida. Miller was promoted from his Calder job last year and now oversees all of the company's gaming operations.
Apparently, neither Bryant or Miller spend much time around horses or frequently venture into the stable area.
“I have gone through the barns and to be honest with you, I was not impressed with some of them,” Bryant told the Louisiana commissioners of the Fair Grounds stable area on Tuesday.
Miller also appeared at Tuesday's meeting. He seemed reluctant to invest the company's money in things like an infield video board. “When we contemplate things like the video board,” he said. “When you think how many people would actually benefit from replacing that video board, it's a small number.”
One reason so few fans stand on the apron and watch the video board is that it doesn't work.
￼￼￼Casino people think in terms of revenue per square foot. That's how the press box at Churchill Downs was transformed into an upscale and expensive Kentucky Derby hospitality area called The Mansion. It's how the apron of Fair Grounds was transformed into a ghost town.
Casino companies do not like spending money on horseracing. It's good that Louisiana has a state racing commission insisting they do. Jerry Meaux, the chairman of the commission may have said it best when he talked about forcing the hand of Churchill Downs to make the necessary improvements: “I hate that it's come to this because personally I don't think anything would have been done.”
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