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Kentucky horse racing purses rising thanks to gaming machines

Louisville Courier-Journal logo Louisville Courier-Journal 9/13/2019 Tim Sullivan, Louisville Courier Journal

Tyler Baze has followed the money for about 2,000 miles.

Formerly a fixture on the California circuit, the veteran jockey has relocated to Kentucky in pursuit of purses that have lately been rising at an astonishing rate. While thoroughbred racing’s challenges have been keenly felt on the West Coast, the sport has been thriving in the commonwealth thanks to the impact of the pari-mutuel gaming terminals loosely known as Historical Horse Racing (HHR).  

“You can’t beat the purses,” Baze said. “And they’re only going to get bigger here with (HHR). I can see a lot of other jocks end up moving here, but maybe I’ve got the jump on them.”

The state’s 2,829 HHR terminals, indistinguishable in appearance from standard casino gaming machines, generated more than $2 billion in total handle during the fiscal year that ended June 30. This added nearly $14 million to race purses through Kentucky’s Thoroughbred Development Fund. As a result, the average purse at Kentucky’s tracks jumped by 48% between 2017 and 2018, from $43,493 to $64,537, and is headed higher.

“These are the good old days for Kentucky racing and breeding,” says Damon Thayer, Kentucky’s Senate Majority Leader.

Kentucky’s average purse is now more than twice the national average and exceeds those of all states that regularly hold races by at least 13%. The Churchill Downs’ September meet that started Friday boasts an average purse of $76,275 per race, a one-year increase of almost $30,000 largely attributable to the gangbuster business being done at the company's Derby City Gaming, which opened last September.

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Through August 31, the Poplar Level Road gaming operation had generated more than $6.4 million for the Thoroughbred Development Fund in less than 12 months of operation. 

“I think it surpassed even what Churchill thought its expectations were,” said Marc Guilfoil, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “It’s (brought) bigger fields, more competitive racing. 

“... I’ve always told people once we got on equal footing with other states, we win. Because we have the infrastructure in Kentucky. We have the best vets. We have the best feed people. We have the best farriers. We have everything there is to offer within 45 minutes of where I’m sitting (in Lexington).”

Trainers have taken notice. With an unofficial average purse of $231,313, the Kentucky Downs meet that ended Thursday attracted a record 11.26 horses per race and some of the most prominent names in the sport. Six of this year’s top seven money-winning trainers won races during the meet, including Steve Asmussen, Mark Casse, Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher.

“A few years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find them here,” Kentucky Downs vice president Ted Nicholson said. “Within the last four years, we’ve gotten them on the radar. ... Our meet has become a bucket list item.

“Why would I want to ship up to Saratoga, run against some pretty tough stables, when I could run for $50,000 in a maiden race and have a really good shot of winning and winning consistently?”

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The appeal has been strong enough to strain existing facilities. Churchill Downs is seeking permission to permanently close a portion of Fourth Street to accommodate the expansion of its barn complex. Keeneland vice president Vince Gabbert says the Lexington track’s stall applications and wait list has probably grown by at least a third since 2015.

While describing the increased demand during a committee hearing last month in Frankfort, Thayer said a leading New York trainer had been house-hunting in Louisville. Asked later to identify that trainer, Thayer said it was Chad Brown, who has annually led all U.S. trainers in earnings since 2016.

Brown subsequently denied that he was interested in acquiring Kentucky real estate, but he’s plainly taking up more space in the commonwealth.

“Four or five years ago, Chad was making starts in the state and bringing his big horses down for the stakes races,” Gabbert said. “He probably would keep five to 10 horses on a rotation. I think you’ll see Chad with 24 to 40 that he’ll keep in the state this fall as a result of the higher purses at Churchill.”

Four-time Breeders’ Cup-winner Peter Miller, who has been a dominant trainer at Del Mar, opened a Kentucky division this year with 29 horses. His Gray Magician won last month’s Ellis Park Derby.

“The joke is I won a Kentucky derby, not the Kentucky Derby,” Miller said.

Miller said his decision to shift some of his stable to Kentucky was “two-pronged,” the result of the unsettled state of California racing and the concurrent growth of purses in Kentucky.

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“It’s like when they asked Jesse James why he robbed banks and he said, ‘That’s where the money is,’" Miller said.

Wait a minute. Wasn’t that Willie Sutton?

“It was one of the two,” Miller said. “It was definitely a bank robber. That’s the same reason I’m at Churchill and the Kentucky circuit: That’s where the money is.”

Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, tsullivan@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @TimSullivan714. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/tims

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky horse racing purses rising thanks to gaming machines

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