Track-record high first condition book purses that represent a whopping 46% increase over last year will greet horsemen when the Churchill Downs spring meet opens Apr. 27.
The wave of the future has been bolstered by a blast from the past, as a top Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) official explained on Thursday that the purse windfall has been created by a better-than-expected surge in wagering on historical horse race betting machines at the corporation’s nearby Derby City Gaming venue that opened last September.
“Derby City Gaming has really exceeded our expectations,” R. Alex Rankin, the chairman of CDI’s board of directors, told TDN via phone. “We really thought it would be good–our team that does casino work, they really think they can win in any market– but sometimes you predict these things and they don’t come true. But this time it did, and it’s really a great story because this is a cooperative effort with the horsemen and the state of Kentucky, and it’s really doing exactly what all the stakeholders hoped it would. This purse increase is because of that facility, and because of the statutory split that goes into purses.”
The first condition book, which covers the first half of the 38-day spring meet, pegs purses for the 189 offered races at $20.1 million, up from $13.7 million in 2018. The daily average will be $1,056,842 compared to $722,579 last year, or $106,243 per race versus $72,640, according to a CDI press release.
More than $30 million in total purses is expected to be offered over the entirety of the spring meet. Last year, $22.2 million in total purses were paid out over the same time frame.
Additionally, the CDI release stated that purses during GI Kentucky Derby week will see further boosts, with maiden special weight races offering $100,000 purses. Total purses on GI Kentucky Oaks Day will exceed $3.6 million, and Derby Day prize money will be worth a record $6.9 million.
After Derby week, maiden special weight races will reset to $85,000 (up from $53,000 in 2018), and allowance races will range from $87,000 to $94,000 (up from $55,000 to $61,000 in 2018).
“There’s no question that maiden special weight purses are the proxy for the health of a racing program,” Rankin said. “And as you saw in the past two or three years, those numbers have gone up dramatically in New York and Arkansas, so we’re catching up now.”
Within the past four months, the national landscape has shifted significantly in terms of purses, particularly in Arkansas. Oaklawn Park in November won voters’ approval to construct a full-blown casino on its property, and that news has sparked purse jumps and an increase in the duration of the meet, which will overlap with Churchill’s for one week for the first time this year. There is the promise of more to come at Oaklawn, as the company is slated to start construction on a $100-million hotel and casino right after the meet ends May 4.
“The timing of [the CDI purse increase] has been great because of Oaklawn’s success and good fortune,” Rankin said. “But what we’re focused on is trying to make the Kentucky circuit such that our horsemen can run for competitive purses vis-a-vis Oaklawn, Saratoga, Belmont, and those places. That’s the goal. Premier racing for our stakes program and solid purses for our Kentucky horsemen are really what we’re trying to achieve. And that drives field size, that drives handle, that drives business for TwinSpires.com. That’s what it’s all about–that’s the engine.”
Asked about non-purse-related improvements that might be in the pipeline–like upgrading backstretch amenities at Churchill–Rankin said: “We’ve got some projects in the works and under consideration that I’m not really in a position to talk about in detail that will affect the backside and add some resources that we feel like we need for the horsemen.
He continued, “You know, we bought all this property around Churchill Downs, and some of that property is adjacent to the backstretch, which gives us flexibility,” Rankin continued. “So there’s room to do other things, and we’re trying to model that and figure out how we’re going to do that.
“But as far as being willing to commit the capital,” Rankin summed up, “I think you would see from what we’ve done that [backstretch improvements] are going to be a positive [priority] when we start making those investments. This Derby City Gaming success obviously fuels the ability to really envision that, not just do what we think we can afford on a piecemeal basis.”
Horsemen–no shocker here—warmly embraced the prospect of bolstered purses.
“Bigger purses are always a positive,” said Dale Romans, the all-time leading trainer at Churchill. “I think the success of their new venture has been great, and the money is going right where it’s supposed to.”