Horse racing fans purchased River Downs grandstand seats earlier this year in a most unusual way.
Instead of buying the chairs as afternoon rentals at the Cincinnati-area Thoroughbred track, fans bought them as permanent mementos of a historic property demolished to make way for a racino.
The limited offering of 300 seats, a fundraiser for retired racehorse care, signaled the end of an era for the quaint facility on the banks of the Ohio River. While River Downs undergoes reconstruction, the traditional Ohio summer racing season shifted to Beulah Park near Columbus.
The revamped River Downs plans to offer both Thoroughbred racing and video lottery terminals (VLTs) in 2014. Revenue from the VLTs will be channeled into the racing program so that horses will be competing for more prize money than in previous years.
“We are working to finalize the details and approvals for our River Downs renovations,” said Kerry Andersen, corporate director of media relations for Pinnacle Entertainment, which purchased River Downs two years ago. “We hope to unveil our exciting plans with media in the market in the next few months.”
The loss of at least one summer of River Downs racing came as a surprise to Kentucky horsemen who relied on the track for their less competitive horses. But the absence has had little effect because of ample racing opportunity within the Bluegrass borders and in nearby states.
Horsemen routinely make day trips to Indiana where horses compete for generous purses enhanced by alternative gaming revenue. Trainers and owners also send their horses for long-term stays or overnight sojourns to tracks with generous purse money, a byproducts of the states’ added gambling options.
Casinos, racinos and racing
Ohio launched alternative gaming in 2012 and has four casinos in operation including one in downtown Cincinnati. The state’s horse racing tracks are not directly affected by these casinos because they are not housed at the tracks.
According to Ohio Racing Commission Chairman Robert Schmitz, the tracks get revenue only from racinos, the term coined to describe alternative gambling on the same premises as the horse racing track.
“River Downs will have [only] video lottery terminals; it is not a casino,” Schmitz said “[VLTs] are like slot machines, but they are not called slot machines.”
Schmitz said River Downs will request their Thoroughbred racing dates later this summer.
“They cannot have video lottery terminals unless they racehorses,” he said. “The first year, they must have 75 days of live racing. The second year they have to have 100 days and the third year they must have 125 days unless they reach an agreement with horsemen’s associations to race more or less.”
River Downs’ dirt track and turf course were removed but both are expected to be rebuilt when the facility reopens.
“They are building a very, very nice facility,” Schmitz said.
The addition of VLTs at Thistledown Racino near Cleveland and Scioto Downs Racino, a harness racing facility near Columbus, has had a positive effect on the prize money. ThistleDown has been operating as a racino since April while Scioto Downs has had VLTs for a year.
“Thistledown increased their total purses by 65 percent,” Schmitz said. “Scioto Downs has basically doubled their purses. Every month a portion of the VLT revenue will go to racing.”
Still no casinos in Kentucky
The Kentucky Thoroughbred racing season shifted to the nearly century-old Ellis Park on the state’s western edge on July 4. Purses have been enhanced by the slot machine-like Instant Racing games installed on the premises last year.
Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and a trainer for more than 35 years, has been a longtime supporter of casino gambling in the state. His HBPA role includes working with legislators on racing-related matters. Efforts in recent years to bring alternative gaming to the Bluegrass State to bolster the tracks’ purse structure have failed, forcing Thoroughbred owners to send their runners to tracks with inflated casino-fueled prize money.
He said he doubts that the recent addition of the Ohio casinos will affect Kentucky politicians.
“The casinos in Indiana and West Virginia did not seem to make them any different, so I don’t know that there is any difference now,” he said.
He also wonders when windfalls from alternative gaming will end.
“I really think that this casino gaming is going to get so saturated across the country that at some point everyone is going to run out of money,” he said. “Those places are not built on winners; they are built on losers. At some point, it has got to take a toll.”
Lexington-based freelance writer Liane Crossley is a lifelong lover of Thoroughbreds who has held a variety of racing-related jobs in barns and offices. Her favorite part of the industry is being with the horses and the people who share her passion for them. She can be reached at email@example.com