by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

There may not have been anyone at Wednesday's press conference at Churchill Downs who understands horse racing's need for slot machines or alternative forms of gambling better than Chip Woolley, the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

Woolley didn't hesitate when I asked him how slot machines have turned around racing and breeding in his native New Mexico. “I wouldn't be here today without slots in New Mexico,” he said. “We were on the edge of extinction when slots were brought in to the racetracks.”

It was the slots-aided purses in New Mexico that gave Woolley's friend, Mark Allen, and Dr. Leonard Blach, the confidence to spend $400,000 on the Birdstone gelding, who had been racing in Canada after being purchased for just $9,500 at the Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale. Allen and Blach thought Mine That Bird might be good enough to win the Sunland Derby, a $900,000 race at Sunland Park fueled by slot machine revenue.

The press conference, called by the Kentucky Equine Education Project, demonstrated the difficult plight of Kentucky racing today, relative to states that have added slot machines or casinos to their wagering menus. Purses in those states are superior to what is being offered at Kentucky tracks, which are losing racehorses, breeding stock and owners to other states.

Bob Elliston, head of Turfway Park, told the gathering that the Northern Kentucky track will have to “sit down with our horsemen and discuss major purse cuts” for its September meeting and the possibility of eliminating racing dates. Ron Geary, owner of Ellis Park in Western Kentucky, has already asked for a reduced racing schedule in 2009 and said this will be the track's final season if the Kentucky legislature doesn't do something to help the horse industry. Ellis Park is fighting to keep horses from going to Indiana Downs, which added slots just one year ago. “In their first year, they had $360 million in revenue from slots,” Geary said. “Ellis Park had $11 million for the same period from live racing and simulcasting.” If Ellis kept its original dates this year, Geary said, purses would total just $70,000 per day, compared with $155,000-$200,000 at Indiana Downs and $225,000 at Hoosier Park.

Other states are “outmaneuvering us legislatively,” Geary added.

Corey Johnsen, co-owner of Kentucky Downs, the all-turf racing track in southern Kentucky that will only race four days this year, said if the legislature leveled the playing field by permitting slot machines at the state's tracks, “It will allow us to compete. We can be the best in the world.”

Bob Evans, CEO of Churchill Downs, which recently received permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to eliminate live racing on Wednesdays because of a shortage of horses, warned that the situation will get worse if something isn't done. Evans said more Florida tracks will add slot machines, Maryland will be online soon with slots parlors, along with a huge slots operation at Aqueduct. “If we don't do something in Kentucky – look out,” Evans said. “The proverbial barn door to the Kentucky horse industry will have been left open.”

Evans said legislators don't need to reinvent the wheel, that they only need to copy from states where slots have helped the horse industry and government.”We are not asking for a government bailout,” he said. “All we want to do is invest $1 billion of our shareholders money and build gaming operations that compete successfully with other states.” The horse industry, he said, “is out of other viable options.”

Nick Nicholson of Keeneland said the press conference was called to crystallize this issue for the people of Kentucky and their legislators. “This has been talked about for some time. This proposal is an idea whose time has come.” The industry, he added, is as unified on the issue as it's ever been.

“If no action takes place and we lose our racing circuit and the prominence of our breeding industry,” Nicholson said, “we don't want anyone in this state to be surprised.”

Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky HBPA, said that if two or three of Kentucky's smaller tracks are forced to close, “it's going to really hurt Churchill Downs.” The breeding industry also is going to be hurt.”

Following the press conference, Dallas Stewart and Bernie Flint, a pair of trainers from Louisiana where slots revenue have helped purses, spoke with Evans about the need for some help from the state. “It's a shame to see a place like this cut back,” Flint said, as he looked up at the Twin Spires made so famous on the first Saturday in May by the Kentucky Derby. “ Flint blamed Kentucky Senate president David Williams for blocking the legislation and said he found it ironic that Williams is known to frequent out of state casinos, where he is said to be an avid blackjack player. “For him to put his foot in the door and block this is wrong,” Flint said. “He goes and plays blackjack in other states, yet says Kentucky can't have gambling.”

Stewart spoke about how slots have turned around business at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. “It's packed,” he said, “and it's really helped racing. If these legislators knew how much the horsemen spend in a city like Louisville, with apartments, restaurants and everything else, they'd be crazy not to do something to keep us here.”

Gov. Steve Beshear, who was elected largely because of his position to bring additional gambling to Kentucky and his support of the horse industry, has talked about calling a special session of the Kentucky legislature to deal with the state's budget crisis. House Bill 158 was passed by the Licensing and Occupations Committee but did not go to the full House for a vote during the Kentucky legislature's 2009 regular session.

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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