Kentucky Racing Dates Committee: Too Early To Project A Timeline For Return Of Racing

As much as Kentucky horsemen would like to see life get back to normal and horses in a post parade, commissioners say it’s too early to project a return to live racing in the state.

“We are unable at this time to suggest a timeline for the reopening of live racing,” said Frank Kling, chairman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission at a meeting of the race dates committee Thursday. “Not knowing that timeline will challenge our ability to have resources in place and horses ready to return to racing when government officials give us the thumbs-up, however we are all in this together and together, we will best shape our future by being flexible and responsive to the changing situation.

“All stakeholders working in the same directions with the same goals will, as always, best serve the industry. We will continue to meet as the criteria evolves in order to properly address public health and economic pressures. I am encouraged by what I hear today and I look forward to resuming live racing as soon as possible.”

Representatives of each Kentucky track also participated in the meeting, which was held via video conference, to provide committee members with updates on the protocols in place at their respective facilities. Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs do not have horses on their properties at this time, and are down to skeleton crews of staff. Ellis has furloughed 213 people, which managing director Ken Mimmack said was two-thirds of its workforce, leaving only security and basic maintenance staff at work. Neither facility was aware of any employees who were suffering from COVID-19 symptoms. The barn area at Ellis is tentatively slated to open May 14.

The Red Mile did have one employee who had been tested for the coronavirus, although that test had not come back at the time of the call.

At Keeneland, there are 600 horses and 150 backstretch workers on site. The track closed to outside horses and personnel but Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said trainers who were already stabled there, particularly those at the Rice Road annex, would be permitted to bring in horses returning from down south, but could not bring in any more staff people.

Horses and people are still training at Turfway Park. Churchill Downs president Kevin Flannery said the track has had to scramble slightly to extend vendor contracts for food and bedding, which would normally be finished now as horsemen moved to Keeneland or Churchill, but so far the supply chain has not been a problem. Anyone coming in the track gates is being screened for symptoms, although Flannery said they are not being temperature checked.

Demolition of the old Turfway grandstand has begun. Construction has continued at CDI’s Oak Grove facility in Southern Kentucky.

At Churchill, Flannery said officials have begun exploring what the process would be like for opening the barn area when the time comes. He is eager to avoid having his staff hit with all 1,500 horses coming in at once, and said there would be health screening procedures for residential barn help. The track is also prepared to run without spectators, should that option be deemed safe.

As to whether the track would keep to its current April 14 timeframe for opening the backstretch, Flannery said, ‘I just don’t know.”

Federal guidelines have called for social distancing protocols to be maintained until at least April 30. Flannery said Churchill will make a decision early next week about whether to keep to its current barn opening date.

Some fans have questioned why Keeneland could not have run its meet with no spectators (which Flannery said worked well at Turfway Park in its last few race cards). Bob Elliston, vice president of racing and sales at Keeneland, provided the committee an explanation.

“We have, between our association monies and KDTF monies, only about $2 million,” said Elliston, who emphasized he was sympathetic to the difficult financial burden a lack of racing places on trainers. “Think about that for a second, I think that was as of the 15th of March. If we were starting racing today, over the next 17 days we will have paid out $10 million or so in association monies and approximately $2 million KDTF.”

Elliston said the track makes up that difference quickly once the meet actually gets rolling, making about 19.5 cents on each dollar wagered on-site, but also getting its cash from intrastate revenues, simulcast, sponsorships, tickets, and on-site dining. That formula is “a bit unique” to Keeneland, but it hinges on its typically high attendance.

“As we think about trying to be part of the circuit, whenever those opportunities present themselves, purse creation and live racing versus spectatorless racing is going to determine what we can do in terms of what the amounts of the purses are and what the numbers of days are we can run,” said Elliston.

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