Amid dates debate with Churchill, Turfway termed a 'weak link'

September 11, 2019 09:39am

Turfway Park could be facing an uphill battle in its fight with Churchill Downs Inc. over winter race dates in northern Kentucky. In an interview Tuesday with Cincinnati public radio station WVXU, State Sen. Damon Thayer, whose district includes Turfway Park, said state regulators “have become very disenchanted with the track's ownership.

“Turfway Park is the only horse racing facility in Kentucky that has not installed historical horse racing machines,” Thayer told WVXU. “They are wildly successful and are increasing purses...Our purses are in the middle of a seven-year, year-over-year positive trajectory that is starting to attract horsemen from other states like California and New York. It's very good news. Our year-round racing circuit...is very successful. Except Turfway is the weak link.”

Churchill Downs Inc. announced last week that it will apply for the race dates from December through March traditionally awarded to Turfway Park. In its proposal, CDI said it could conduct winter racing at Churchill Downs while building a new $200 million racetrack somewhere in northern Kentucky. Thayer said CDI projects it would take 12 to 18 months to complete the new facility, which is being called New Latonia Racing & Gaming.

Thayer acknowledged state legislators and the KHRC have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of investment in Turfway Park. Turfway Park was owned by JACK Entertainment when historic racing machines were approved in December 2015. After several proposals to install the machines at Turfway never materialized, JACK sold a controlling interest in Turfway to Hard Rock International in April. JACK continues to work with Hard Rock during the transition. 

RELATED: Turfway Park 'committed' to keeping its race dates

“They keep making these promises about putting in historical horse racing machines,” Thayer said of Turfway Park ownership. “They were approved for them almost four years ago and they never put the machines in. The racing commission and legislators like me have really become tired of JACK's false promises.”

KHRC members have previously said they believe JACK has not acted on historical racing machines at Turfway Park as a way to protect its interests in a casino it owns across the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

In July, Hard Rock made a presentation to the KHRC outlining plans to improve Turfway Park. According to Thayer, regulators did not come away impressed. 

“The word on the street is that the racing commission wasn't really happy with Hard Rock's presentation to them about what they would do if they bought the track,” Thayer said. “And remember, they have to be granted a license by Jan. 1 to operate Turfway Park and get those race dates.”

KHRC spokesperson Krista Locke would not comment on specifics of Hard Rock's bid, other than that talks have continued to take place since the presentation in July.

"Hard Rock provided preliminary information regarding proposed plans for Turfway Park to the commission in July," Locke said. "Further communication between Hard Rock and the commission have taken place but no formal action has been taken."

Thayer noted he “doesn't have a dog in this fight” between Churchill Downs and Turfway Park as it's a regulatory issue, not a legislative one. But, he added northern Kentucky is an “under-served market,” and the current situation at Turfway Park is simply unacceptable.

RELATED: Details of Churchill Downs' track proposal

“Turfway is decrepit. No money has been spent there to improve it since I worked there in the late 1990s,” Thayer said. “It really is an embarrassment to Kentucky racing. It's not good for fans and the horses, horsemen and jockeys that compete there.

“Every other track in the state is thriving, and we are quickly becoming the place to race," Thayer continued. “You know, for years we were famous as a place to breed and raise horses. But now we're becoming a place to race horses as well -- where people are paying attention to us not just on the first Saturday in May, but the rest of the year as well. But Turfway Park has been the weak link in the circuit.”

Thayer said the KHRC, which next meets in October, has until Nov. 1 to make a decision on the future of winter racing in Kentucky. While that timeline may be true for practical purposes, Locke said there are no hard deadlines for when the commission must make a decision.

The proposed racing facility from Churchill Downs would include a one-mile synthetic track and a seven-furlong dirt track on the inside. There would also be year-round stabling available.

“Northern Kentucky deserves a top-class horse racing facility that also offers historical horse racing, year round simulcasting and potentially in the future sports wagering,” Thayer said. “I'm hopeful that whoever gets these dates will be committed to horse racing in Northern Kentucky so we can take our rightful place as a crown jewel of Kentucky horse racing.”

 

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