Wagering declines increase pressure on non-slots tracks

Sep 8, 2009 5:09 PM
Industry Insider by Ray Poirier |

Support for horse racing continued to decline in August, with wagering falling nationally by 12.35 percent, but the decline is being felt more at racetracks that are forced to compete with racinos that are subsidized by revenue from slot machines.

And that underscores the problem in Kentucky, the Bluegrass State and home of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

"Our tracks," said Bob Evans, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc. (CHDN), "are competing at a substantial disadvantage" against tracks located in states that have authorized video lottery terminals (VLTs).

But, in a stinging commentary delivered before the Louisville, Kentucky, Rotary Club last week, Senate President David Williams lashed out at the management of Churchill Downs saying, "those running the track are not racing people, they’re slot machine people."

It’s that difference of opinion, as well as strong opposition from church groups and others, that has kept the state out of the slot machine business.

"Corporations sometimes lose their way," said Williams, whose opposition to a slots bill has kept it from being considered in the senate. "And the folks that lead Churchill Downs now are not racing people, they’re slot machines people."

However, in Kentucky, Churchill Downs is not alone in trying to compete against tracks whose higher purses have been a major draw for horses.

Ron Geary, owner of Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky, is considering shutting down the facility that has been in operation for 88 years. He says he can’t afford to stay open unless Kentucky lawmakers allow the tracks to supplement their purses with revenues from VLTs.

As he ponders whether to pack it in, Geary remarked, "I don’t know which is more dependable: handicapping horses or handicapping what our state legislature is going to do. In effect, surrounding states have taken – or stolen – our horse business."

Noting that horsemen were shipping their horses to nearby Hoosier Park in Indiana, Geary lamented, "From our perspective, it’s not a really positive future ahead of us."

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ray Poirier