Kentucky racetracks continue to announce record purse money offered to horses and owners competing in the Commonwealth, but without passage of Senate Bill 120 during the 2021 legislative session in Frankfort, the future of Kentucky’s racing circuit would look significantly different.
State Representative Matt Koch (R-Paris) recently offered his perspective on the history of Kentucky’s signature equine industry and how it has been impacted by historical horse racing in an interview with The Bottom Line. Koch’s perspective is unique in that he is a state legislator who also co-owns and operates a thoroughbred farm in Bourbon County.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, we started seeing casinos start popping up in surrounding states, and it started killing us because purses are what drive this industry,” Koch said. “As purses in other states grew from the casino money, we started to see the exodus of horses leaving Kentucky for other states that were offering higher purses.”
Koch said the introduction of historical horse racing was incredible for Kentucky’s purses and the quality of the state’s racing circuit.
Kentucky Downs in Franklin was the first racetrack in the state to offer historical horse racing in September of 2011. Ellis Park followed suit a year later. According to the Jockey Club, the average purse per race in Kentucky in 2011 was $42,550. In 2020, Kentucky’s average purse per race climbed to a record $78,125, an increase of nearly 84 percent over the nine-year period.
But in September of 2020, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that historical horse racing did not fit the legal definition of parimutuel wagering in the Commonwealth, in an opinion stating that, “If a change, however, in the long-accepted definition of pari-mutuel wagering is to be made that change must be made by the people of this Commonwealth through their duly-elected legislators.”
Koch said the impact of losing historical horse racing in the state would be devastating to the industry, which was why it was so important to act during the 2021 legislative session.
Senate Bill 120 passed the legislature and was signed into law by the governor on February 21. Since then, several Kentucky thoroughbred tracks have announced record purses to be offered during their 2021 race meets. In April, Churchill Downs announced a $3.1 million purse increase for its spring meet as a result of robust business from historical horse racing. Ellis Park in Henderson kicked off its summer meet at the end of June, with record purses announced at an average of $350,000 per day. During Kentucky Downs’ six-day September meeting, the track announced it will offer 16 stakes races worth a record $10 million in purses. And just recently, Keeneland announced it will award a record $6 million in stakes purses during its 2021 fall meet in October.