Churchill, 2 other Ky. tracks like odds better if they own casinos

May 08, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Imagine the MGM Grand Hotel and Gambling Casino in Las Vegas sitting next to the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.

That's where visitors to the 2000 Kentucky Derby might be staying if legislation passes Kentucky's General Assembly in 1996 permitting the state's racetracks to operate casinos.

Churchill Downs is pushing for approval of such a project.

In Maryland, such an idea is just a thought. The state racing commission recently established a subcommittee to study expansion into alternative forms of gaming at Maryland's racetracks.

In Kentucky, it is not only part of Churchill Downs' corporate strategic plan, but also a component of business plans for Turfway and Ellis parks.

The three Kentucky tracks, excluding Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, founded a coalition eight months ago called "Kentucky To the Front." The group formed to lobby state government for gaming permits at their tracks.

Why the sudden interest in casino gambling? Six counties in neighboring Indiana have voted to allow riverboat casino gambling to operate on the Ohio River, some just a short distance from tracks.

The boats would compete with the three tracks for bettors. In the case of Turfway and Ellis parks, the boats would be located directly across from the tracks. The closest casino to Churchill Downs would be just 10 miles away in Harrison County, Ind. But as many as five boats could be located within a two-hour drive from the track.

"We could either ignore the competition or plan to do something about it," said Alex Waldrop, general counsel for Churchill Downs and the man heading the track's lobbying effort. "You either seize the day or have this great flood of gambling wash over you."

According to Waldrop, the University of Louisville School of Equine Studies performed a study under the auspices of two of the school's professors, Richard Thalheimer and Bob Lawrence. The result showed that tracks operating in competition with casinos lose 40 percent of their business to the casinos.

"Casino gaming decimates the horse-racing tracks," Waldrop said. "But if the tracks are given the exclusive license in Kentucky to operate casinos then "we could control it and funnel revenues from the casinos into beefing up our purses."

Waldrop said estimates show that current average daily purses at Churchill Downs could rise from $250,000 daily to $450,000 a day if they were partly funded by casino revenues. "That's a major infusion of money," he said.

So far, no bill has been introduced into the legislature, and the tracks' move has been resisted by breeders, Keeneland management and anti-gambling opponents. In Kentucky, the legislature meets every two years, so the General Assembly won't reconvene until 1996.

In the meantime, Churchill Downs is exploring the possibility of forming a partnership with some of the companies applying to operate the Indiana riverboats. The track made such a move with the Harrah's gaming company last year when it appeared imminent that a boat could be located at Jeffersonville, five miles from Churchill Downs. However, voters in Clark County, Ind., where the boat would be located, turned down the measure.

So far, no boats have been licensed in Indiana although the state gaming commission is studying applications in the approval process.

National wager debuts May 30

The National Best Seven, a country-wide Pick Seven type of bet, will debut on Memorial Day, May 30, and will include two Grade I stakes, the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park and the Hollywood Turf Handicap from Hollywood Park, among the seven featured races.

The National Best Seven, which will be offered weekly on Saturdays, will link seven premier races in a 60-minute closed-circuit telecast. The base wager will be 50 cents. It is hoped that the bet will result in large weekly pools with high-payoff potential.

Revenues from the bet will go to fund a recently established national racing office in New York that will plan advertising and marketing campaigns for the sport.

Trackside impressionist

Peter Williams, a congenial New Zealander, made a dual appearance this spring, painting racing scenes both at Churchill Downs during Derby week and at the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Williams is a regular at Churchill Downs, setting his easel up in the paddock and painting while the races are in progress.

He calls his style "frantic impressionism." He completes the rudimentary details of the painting within hours and markets them to well-heeled passers-by.

He was invited by the Maryland Hunt Cup Committee to paint a scene of the course to be presented as a surprise gift to Worthington Farms owner, J. W. Y. "Duck" Martin Jr. on April 30.

"It was my first visit to the Hunt Cup," Williams said. "Interestingly enough, while I was doing the painting at the race, Duck comes up and wants to know if it's for sale.

"I had to tell him 'no.' Then at the Hunt Cup Ball that night, the committee presented him with the work."

Maryland interests at the Derby

There were no Maryland-bred or Maryland-based horses running in the Kentucky Derby, but there were still a few Maryland connections at the race.

One of the horses, Soul Of The Matter, is sired by Maryland stallion, Private Terms.

One of the trainers, Rodney Rash, is a Carroll County native who worked at the Shamrock and Dickey farms before heading West at age 16 to work for Charlie Whittingham.

One of the owners, David P. Reynolds, lives in Florida. But he owns and breeds a large number of horses in Maryland. He keeps the majority of his stock at Worthington Farms, which is owned is owned by his niece, Glennie Martin, and her husband, Duck.

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