May 9, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: Bleeding continues in KY horse industry

It was a near perfect showcase for our state at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. The weather was great. The second largest crowd in history turned out for a wide-open field of 20 horses, so competitive that the odds on nearly half of them were less than 15 to 1.In the end, we were treated to a breathtaking performance by a Kentucky-bred horse named Barbaro, winning the race by the largest margin in 60 years, giving us hope, again, that this might be the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed did it in 1978.Indeed, it was a good day for Kentucky in the eyes of the nation.But dark clouds continue to swirl over the future of horse racing in Kentucky. While our elected officials opt for political posturing over action, the gap widens between the haves (Churchill Downs and Keeneland) and the have-nots (Ellis Park and Turfway Park), and disasters (both natural and man-made) continue to plague our signature industry.Unfortunately, any discussion of the problems facing thoroughbred racing in Kentucky seems to end up in an overly-heated argument about whether to embrace expanded gaming as the savior. But regardless of where you stand on the issue (admittedly, I have mixed feelings on the subject), Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry is bleeding and needs help — with or without expanded gaming. That galloping sounding sound you hear is from the stampede of horses, trainers and owners who are finding more love in other states like — Delaware!I am not making this up.Thanks to Barbaro’s victory, we got an inside peek at one place where racing was once left for dead. Delaware’s very quiet resurgence has it poised to pass Kentucky into fourth place for highest average purses — the bread and butter for those who race. Prior to last week’s Derby, there were plenty of stories in the Delaware newspapers about how Delaware Park has become a favorite for the nation’s top horses and horsemen. Barbaro won his first career race there last fall, and last year’s top horse, Afleet Alex, also got his start there. Recently, John Servis, trainer of 2004 Derby winner Smarty Jones, moved 40 horses to Delaware from his Philadelphia base.However, most alarming was the recent decision by Larry Jones, a long-time top trainer at Ellis Park in Henderson, to move his entire stable of 40 horses from Kentucky to Delaware Park. Brian Elmore, Ellis Park’s general manager, sadly acknowledged to a local paper, “It’s hard to believe horses leave here now going to West Virginia and Delaware. That’s where you used to go if you were on your way down.”But 84-year-old Ellis, which is owned by Churchill Downs, has suffered through a number of bad seasons financially, with many insiders believing it’s a matter of time before the track is closed. Adding to Ellis’ problems, a tornado hit the track last November, destroying 10 of the track’s 38 barns and damaging 11 more. It also killed four horses, causing many to fear that Churchill Downs would finally shut it down. When Ellis agreed to a shortened meet, it was generally seen as a Band-Aid measure that will not keep the track from shutting down next year, leaving an unimaginable two-month gap in Kentucky’s year-round racing.Northern Kentucky’s Turfway Park is also finding itself behind the eight-ball as it contends with the real possibility that an expanded-gaming amendment will find its way onto the November ballot in Ohio this year. If successful, that would instantly vault Cincinnati’s River Downs (by far an inferior product to date) into serious competition with Turfway in purse money, attracting better horses in the process.And Churchill Downs must contend with the retirement of its longtime CEO Tom Meeker, who is leaving after 22 years at the helm. During his tenure, Meeker transformed Churchill Downs from a racetrack to a top-flight company and successfully completed a $121 million renovation to the track, while purchasing additional tracks in Chicago, Miami, New Orleans and Los Angeles.If Barbaro continues his dominance for two more races, Kentucky will rightly and proudly flex its muscles to the thoroughbred world with the first Triple Crown winner in nearly 30 years. But if Kentucky’s political leadership doesn’t get its collective act together soon, the industry bleeding will continue, and horsemen and trainers will reluctantly leave their Old Kentucky Home for greener pastures in places like — Delaware. Unbelievable. Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org, which recently won the 2005 Koufax Award for Best State or Local Blog in the country. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org