Track leaders say racing is in serious jeopardy

The heads of Kentucky's six leading tracks and the largest thoroughbred horsemen's association painted a dire picture Wednesday afternoon of what will happen if the Kentucky legislature does not soon act to bring slot machines to the commonwealth's racetracks.

The press conference was held in the Churchill Downs paddock on the first canceled Wednesday of the spring meet - a point made by several speakers.

Churchill Downs earlier this month received permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to drop from a five- to four-day race week because of a shortage of horses, which tracks are blaming in large part to competition for tracks in the region with slots-enriched purses.

The tracks and horsemen are supporting House Speaker Greg Stumbo's bill to bring slots to the racetracks.

"This has been talked about for some time," said Keeneland Association president Nick Nicholson. "But we feel this proposal is better than previous proposals. We feel this is an idea whose time has come. We wanted to be crystal clear to everyone that this industry is unified as perhaps it's never been. We are in serious jeopardy, as we've perhaps never been. And if no action takes place, and we lose our racing circuit, and we lose the prominence of our Kentucky breeding industry, we did not want anyone in this state to be surprised.

" We felt it was appropriate that we as clearly as we possibly can, let everyone know the facts in this case and what we think the solution is that will end up being good for Kentucky and good for this industry that has been so good to Kentucky."

The track heads said the industry is not looking for a bailout but rather an equal playing field with other states.

Joe Costa, president of The Red Mile, said the Lexington harness track is under siege and is considering dropping its fledgling quarter-horse meet as a cost-cutting move next year. He said at least 24 harness tracks in North America benefit from expanded gaming in their jurisdictions and noted that Kentucky's three harness tracks race a total of 76 days.

"If anyone is wondering what the future is going to be for the thoroughbred industry, I think they just have to take a few minutes and reflect on the absolute devastation competition has handed the standardbred industry here in the state," he said. "The Kentucky standardbred is the canary in the coal mine.

" Imagine University of Louisville and University of Kentucky's men's basketball if they didn't have a single scholarship. Could they compete against Duke? Could they compete against North Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma, UCLA?... That's the exact equivalent of what the horse-racing industry in Kentucky is facing."

Also present was Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Chip Woolley, who says he was shocked to hear about the cutbacks at Churchill Downs and has pointed to his native New Mexico as a prime example of how slots machines at the tracks saved the racing industry there. He said horse racing is the third-biggest industry in New Mexico.

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