Churchill Downs is thoroughbred racing’s contrary indicator, ever expanding as its sport shrinks.
The paddock project announced last week will push the price of a three-phase renovation to at least $318 million at a time many of racing’s key metrics would suggest belt-tightening.
Jockey Club statistics show the size of the annual foal crop has fallen by almost 50% over the past 15 years (from 34,905 in 2006 to an estimated 17,840 in 2021). The total number of races run has dropped by a third during that same span (from 51,668 to 33,567), and it will fall further still upon Churchill Downs Inc.’s pending sales of Arlington Park outside Chicago and the Miami acreage formerly home to Calder Racetrack.
With racing executives openly concerned about their ability to retain casual bettors and/or state subsidies, continuing investment in the home of the Kentucky Derby conveys confidence in a future many believe to be bleak for the industry at large.
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“The short answer is there is no money in horse racing,” said Sharon Ward, former director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and author of a report on How Pennsylvanians Bankroll The Sport of Kings. “Gambling has really exploded. People are spending money on betting, but that money is not going to horse racing and the industry is continuing to decline…
“If you apply a cold business eye to horse racing, it just doesn’t make sense.”
That it still makes sense at Churchill Downs (CDI) and a handful of other U.S. racetracks is largely a function of long tradition, local culture and political accommodation. Several Kentucky racetracks framed the state’s legislative battle over slot machines (euphemistically known as Historical Horse Racing terminals) as a fight for their survival. In a guest column published in the Courier Journal last February, Louisville trainer Dale Romans wrote “it’s not hyperbole” to say three of the state’s five thoroughbred tracks — Ellis Park, Kentucky Downs and Turfway Park — would close without HHR.
Yet as new National Thoroughbred Racing Association President Tom Rooney has observed, some poorly attended tracks coexist with casinos essentially as a condition of expanded gambling, “because it’s part of their license with the …….