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May 20, 2009

Down the final stretch?

They root differently than I do. Watching the Preakness from the Horseman’s Lounge at Churchill Downs, I was all goosebumps and excitement. “Go, Rachel! Go! Run, Rachel, Run!” 

Not four feet away was Hal Wiggins, Rachel Alexandra’s trainer until she was sold and transferred to Steve Asmussen after winning the Kentucky Oaks. Wiggins was surprisingly calm watching his filly. Only when the horses came down the final stretch did he utter, “Come on, Calvin! Come on!”

Satisfied and probably a little melancholy after the newly crowned “Super Filly” won, Wiggins announced, “I wanna beat the traffic,” and headed out — before the garland of Black-Eyed Susans materialized.

I did have to wait in traffic to get out of the parking lot. There was a nice crowd at Churchill on Preakness day. Unfortunately that kind of attendance isn’t the norm this meet. Then again, this meet might be the new “normal.”

Veteran trainer Dallas Stewart sees the writing on the barn walls: If expanded gambling isn’t introduced to drive up purses, he and other horsemen will have little choice but to pack up their thoroughbreds and move to greener, more lucrative pastures.

And there are plenty outside Kentucky. True, almost none have a world-class facility like Churchill Downs, but horsemen will adapt. Money tends to heal most wounds.

Churchill Downs doesn’t have enough horses to fill some race cards this meet. This is not some dirt track in Podunkville where jockeys tie chickens to horses’ tails to make them run faster. Churchill Downs is one of the premier racing venues in the world.

Diminished race entries were so significant, track representatives — mid-meet, mind you — petitioned the Horse Racing Commission to eliminate entire racing days. Starting Wednesday, the track will be dark not only on Mondays and Tuesdays, but also most Wednesdays. Purses for stakes races also were slashed. Winnings for the Stephen Foster Handicap were cut by $150,000.

Race Secretary Ben Hoffman says Churchill’s situation is as bad as he’s ever seen it. He predicts that if major action isn’t taken immediately, conditions will only get worse. The crux of the problem, as Hoffman explains it, is that cumulative struggles of Kentucky tracks have wiped out a Kentucky racing circuit.

Marquee horsemen once stabled at Churchill so they could run Keeneland, then Churchill, then Ellis Park and finally Turfway. There was good money. Not anymore. Ellis is a whinny away from pulling up its soybeans, and Turfway already cut back on racing. Churchill’s payouts are still decent, but if horsemen stay to run the spring meet, there’s nowhere to go when it’s over. Meets at Monmouth, Delaware Park and Presque Isle are already in progress. Stalls are difficult to come by. 

We are in serious danger of losing one of Kentucky’s signature industries. Our horses, trainers and breeders could leave.

Could the Mountaineer state one day host men and women sipping mint juleps, wearing fancy hats and making exotic bets? Could the first Saturday in May be the date of the “West Virginia Derby”? Look what’s happening in Maryland. Baltimore already lost the Colts. Now it might lose the Preakness.

Churchill detractors accuse the racetrack of concocting this dire financial construction to force the state to allow expanded gaming. They allege executives will permit today’s situation to deteriorate until state lawmakers have no choice but to bring in video slot machines. While we continue to argue expanded gaming, Indiana is moving closer to adding game tables at some Hoosier tracks. New legislation passed just last week in Delaware will allow its three tracks to offer sports betting and blackjack, craps, poker and roulette. 

Granted, not everybody enjoys thoroughbred racing, and you have plenty of reasons why some people wouldn’t care if racing were to leave Churchill tomorrow.

Only they’d better care. Kentucky’s horse industry employs 100,000 people and has a $4 billion economic impact on the commonwealth.

There is tremendous sentimental and legacy value in stabling under the Spires, but if Kentucky horsemen can’t make the bank they need, they won’t stay. They won’t be able to afford to.

That day might be coming fast. If Kentucky lawmakers and citizens, regardless of their position on expanded gaming, don’t wake up to what’s happening and take action, Hal Wiggins won’t be musing about beating the traffic off Central Avenue. Wiggins, Stewart, Zito, Baffert, Byrne and the entire backside will be elsewhere. And part of Kentucky’s soul will have vanished. 

Tagged: Francene |