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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 18, 2022 – Good racing is always entertaining, especially this past weekend when America’s Day at the Races provided simulcast coverage from New York and Kentucky in tandem via the broadcast auspices of the New York Racing Association.

Given recent developments, though, we’re curious about how long friendly relations between two of America’s three major Thoroughbred racing organizations will last.

In the latter-day era, New York racing is and has been preeminent, but it has become increasingly obvious in recent years that Kentucky is seeking to unseat New York as America’s premier circuit.

And the Commonwealth is merely a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission rubber stamp away from making year-round racing a reality. The games are about to begin. [The project has gained approval from the KHRC on 092022].

Last week, Churchill Downs Incorporated announced it has a definitive agreement to acquire Ellis Park Racing & Gaming in Henderson, Kentucky for $79 million in cash and other purchase-price considerations. But there is another significant facet of the acquisition:

CDI will also assume Ellis Park’s current rights to construct a track extension facility in Owensboro, about a 30-minute drive from Ellis Park, Kentucky’s summer-racing playground boasting a favorably reviewed dirt surface. Think 2-year-olds turning three here.

When it comes to prestige and popularity and prestige, Saratoga Race Course is peerless, but that doesn’t mean Ellis Park can’t expand its gaming facility that already houses 300 historical horse racing machines and have  a serious impact on Saratoga’s legendary juvenile program.

In a CDI press release, CEO Bill Carstanjen stated “Our team is committed to building a summer meet that keeps more Kentucky-bred horses and Kentucky-based trainers in their home state while attracting top talent from across the country each July and August.”

Gauntlet thrown.

As a publicly traded company, CDI can do what the bean counters allow it to do while is NYRA, of course, beholden to the state that grants it a franchise to operate. The current franchise agreement assures stability, but 2033 isn’t all that far away.

Who knows which way political winds will blow in the next decade?

Saratoga is timeless but time inexorably marches forward. Ellis Park will have little impact on the “beautiful people” 1-percenters who will continue renting Victorians on Union Avenue. But this is not a blue state-red state thing. The only color that matters here is green.

At it’s present meet, Churchill offers special-weight purses for juveniles for $120,000. At that level, Kentucky horsemen and women with young horses just might stay home for the summer.

CDI already is planning to make investments in Ellis Park’s infrastructure and construct a reimagined Owensboro Racing & Gaming facility that will include 600 historical racing machines, a simulcast center replete with many food and beverage options.

Added Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, “Churchill Downs has proven it has the experience, resources, and desire to reinvigorate Ellis Park into a premier racing destination and provide unmatched gaming entertainment.”

According to this announcement, CDI will invest another $75 million that will benefit  Henderson and Daviess Counties to be approximately $75 million in addition to the purchase price.

Kentucky horsemen and politicians appear all in: “Kentucky racing just took another step forward with the purchase of Ellis Park…” said Rick Hiles, Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president. “It is our pleasure as the KY HBPA to work with them to bring Ellis Park back to the place it used to be.”

Said Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne said. “This acquisition is also a boost to one of our state’s signature industries and the direct result of legislation we passed to help make our tracks more competitive… is necessary to sustain and grow the industry.”

On paper, Western Kentucky in the summer months is no match for the Adirondack foothills. It remains to be seen in the future whether what happens between the fences will present a significant challenge to the quality of the most celebrated race meet in America.

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4 Responses

  1. The only thing I can say and it should be obvious to all horseplayers is that Kentucky is committed to horse racing in a way NY never will be. The proof of this is the way business is conducted at all tracks not named Saratoga.

  2. I’m sure you’re not alone in this Aaron, though I have been away from day-to-day NYRA decision-making since 1996 and can’t comment personally. Guess this only makes sense for Kentucky since it is their signature industry. At least, present Governor Kathy Hochul has an appreciation for what horse racing brings to New York State in jobs and revenue.

  3. I like how Kentucky is the blue grass cradle of horse racing, yet they can’t get a grass course to grow in correctly while NYRA has 6 of the best grass courses in the game.

    Despite this, I am definitely expecting them to make a real push to cut into Saratoga’s dominance.

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