A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Dale Romans: Historical horse racing is a game-changer that is good for Kentucky

As a second-generation horse trainer and Kentuckian, my entire life has been spent in Thoroughbred racing. I’ve seen Kentucky racing at its finest, and I’ve seen how quickly out-of-state competition can render us increasingly irrelevant. Right now Kentucky is at the top. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

I currently have 50 employees and do business with more than 100 vendors in Kentucky alone. Without Historical Horse Racing (HHR) revenue supplementing the purses for which our horses compete, many of those jobs will have to leave the state, as will our business with all those area vendors.

Dale Romans at a horse sale. (Gwen Davis/Davis Innovation)

People forget, but it wasn’t that long ago that Kentucky racing was badly hemorrhaging amid regional and national competition for horses. As more horse owners and trainers opted to race at tracks with purses fueled by slots and casino gaming, Ellis Park’s summer meet and Turfway Park’s winter racing were on life support. Even legendary Churchill Downs and Keeneland struggled with a profound horse shortage. Our breeding farms suffered from an exodus of mares they’d previously boarded, leaving the Bluegrass for states with more meaningful incentives – supported by revenue from racinos and casinos – for horses foaled in those jurisdictions.

First introduced by then-struggling Kentucky Downs in 2011, Historical Horse Racing proved the game-changer for good, reversing the downward spiral for Kentucky’s signature industry. HHR is not a subsidy for horse racing. It’s an innovative, racing-based product that reinvests in our iconic industry. This is one of those win-win-win situations that has benefitted the whole state. It has sparked significant economic development and creates and preserves jobs. 

Purses are the universal language of horsemen. We follow the money. And where our horses go, so go the jobs. American horse racing is not the sport of kings. It’s the sport of thousands of stables operating as local businesses employing real people in communities across the country.

Horse racing is an extremely labor-intensive business; you’re never going to automate caring for a horse. And that’s a good thing. We want it to be labor intensive and give people the opportunity to work in our industry. 

Because of Historical Horse Racing and combined with our quality of life and affordable housing, Kentucky is now the mecca for horsemen. Trainers and jockeys on both coasts are increasing their presence in Kentucky, if not making it their primary base. Ellis Park and Turfway’s barns are full for their meets, as are area training centers. The horses occupying those stalls reflect added jobs.

Within the short period of time in which it has been up and running, HHR has completely changed the dynamics of racing on a national level, with Kentucky once more at the forefront.

This provides a huge boost for the entire economy of Kentucky, not only horse racing. Just ask the mayors and county judge executives in Henderson and Simpson counties what HHR has meant for their communities. Historical Horse Racing has brought entertainment dollars back to Kentucky, with HHR operations themselves employing 1,400 people in six cities. Our racetracks have invested nearly $1 billion the past 10 years in capital projects with another $600 million planned.

Make no mistake, that will change for the worse if the Kentucky Legislature doesn’t act to protect HHR. It needs to follow the simple blueprint the Kentucky Supreme Court provided to address its constitutionality concern.

It is not hyperbole to say three of our five thoroughbred tracks will close without HHR: Ellis Park, Turfway Park and Kentucky Downs. Harness racing will be history. Jobs will evaporate, millions of economic development and tourism dollars lost.

Whether you approve of alternative gaming or not, it is right here in our market — just across the border in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia and not far away in Pennsylvania. The majority of Kentucky’s population can get to a casino to gamble within 30 minutes.

Kentucky’s horse industry has a $5.2 billion economic impact and employs 60,000 people directly or indirectly. The commonwealth’s racetracks pay more than $100 million annually in state and local taxes. Out-of-state money flows into Kentucky’s coffers as a result of horse racing and its economic driver, HHR.

Do we want to needlessly sacrifice that?

It’s important to have a year-round, consistent racing circuit in Kentucky. Without HHR, Kentucky racing will be an afterthought in a very quick period of time. Legislators must ask themselves: Can we afford that?

Dale Romans has trained in his native Kentucky since 1986, racing extensively at the Commonwealth’s five thoroughbred tracks and reigning as Churchill Downs’ all-time win leader for 2 1/2 years until being surpassed by Steve Asmussen last June. Romans, the recipient of the 2012 trainer Eclipse Award, has won 2,076 races, including the 2011 Preakness Stakes with Shackleford and three Breeders’ Cup races. He is a vice president of the Kentucky HBPA, which represents owners and trainers at the state’s thoroughbred tracks.

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