Only 17,148 fans attended Keeneland’s opener and 11,057 on Sunday. But a crowd of 22,953 showed up for the races on Saturday, for an average attendance of 17,053. Over the span of the first three days of the annual fall meet, the fans wagered $4,246,373 on track. Counting all places where money’s bet legally, it was a $25,466,994 weekend.
Perfect weather played a big role in the track’s numbers. There were plenty of tourists in town. The price of a room at the two Red Roof Inns rose to $149.99 – that’s if you could find one available. The World Equestrian Games and the Auburn at University of Kentucky football tilt contributed several thousand warm bodies to the swell of humanity.
Regardless, for the first time in a long time, the playground at 4201 Versailles Road experienced what it feels to be one of several attractions to choose from. Expecting to break records, Keeneland’s numbers were down. Still, the racecourse fared well in comparison to Sam Bush in concert and Big Red at the cinema. Racetracks elsewhere used to be like this – people having fun, betting dough, enjoying themselves.
Underlying the bliss, nonetheless, runs a current of troubled waters. Keeneland’s first weekend, called Fall Stars Weekend, featured all but the lone remaining stakes race that has impact on the Breeders’ Cup fields. The Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup for turf-racing fillies and mares this upcoming Saturday is a $400,000 Grade 1 race. But with only three weeks between it and the Breeders’ Cup, the QE2 without “Win and You’re In” consequence.
Openings are usually a set-up for grand finales. But, in Keeneland’s case, the finale comes first. Visiting the racecourse will constitute a rare treat for everyone that pours through its turnstiles in upcoming days. Yet, the track’s greatest feature – the chance to see champions at work – has passed. Fans will have to wait a few weeks and then drive 80 miles west for that.
Nevertheless, a conflict of purpose with the Breeders’ Cup is the least of the track’s problems. Lexington is the capital of the Thoroughbred industry. Horse racing is a strand of the city's DNA to the same extent that technology identifies Silicon Valley or wine defines Napa. How the sport goes, so goes Kentucky. But a few more years of economic hardship commingled with self-interested politics can make it the next Maryland.
Shamelessly entrepreneurial, Churchill Downs, led by P.T. Evans, relied on theme parties to boost Friday night attendance. There was horse racing under the twin spires only four days a week in the spring, often bringing together five to seven horses per race. The owners of Ellis Park hang out a “going out of business” sign routinely. Turfway Park, a racing plant that Keeneland co-owns with Harrah’s, ran only one stakes this September, cancelling the last three of six Kentucky Cup races that weren’t scrapped the year before. The Sport of Kings, on the surface, may appear healthy to people out for an afternoon at Keeneland. But up and down the Commonwealth, from one end to the other, the once-mighty enterprise is struggling.
To economize, Keeneland has issued buyouts to employees and has downgraded its racing program. Like Saratoga, Keeneland’s facing the nationwide horse shortage by carding races of marginal quality. Unlike Saratoga, it dropped two stakes in spring and two in the fall while lowering purses. Although the cutbacks won’t harm the tailgating or ruin the burgoo, they are nothing to leave unattended. Meanwhile, the situation throughout the state has been met with a puzzling response by people who could help it.
Without doubt, Kentucky’s woes are common to all in the business. Therefore, a good portion of blame belongs to industry individuals who have resisted a central authority. The NTRA wielded power and promoted the sport via advertising the last time that horse racing grew in attendance and handle. But like patients with a mental disorder that stop taking meds once they start to feel better, it took only one disagreement over something that was meaningless for some to conclude that the high they were on wasn’t caused by bricolage. The sport needs a commissioner; a strong compact, at least.
In regard to the specific, Kentucky deserves financial help from its government. The politicians are quick to lean on the racetracks, breeding farms, sales agencies, transportation and feed companies to fund their campaigns. But money hasn’t flowed in two directions. Kentucky horse racing is watching idly as its revenue is being fleeced by neighboring states. The brightly-lit casinos on the borders and rivers are drawing gamblers from Paducah to Pikeville. Indiana Downs’s purses grew 30 per cent this year.
Hope exists in Kentucky’s horse racing community that the installation of instant racing games will contribute to raising purses, thus keeping horsemen in the state. There are people who believe the tough times will pass as the economy revives – that life is cyclical and the power of that which is good will prevail over the long term, just as rain will turn the grass green again. A day at Keeneland with a picnic in the parking lot, a spot on the apron, beautiful horses and people – such perfection will last forever. Won’t it?
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