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Churchill Downs is ‘optimistic’ about Kentucky casino chances

By Janet Patton

Churchill Downs executives said Thursday they remain “heavily engaged” in the pursuit of casino gambling in Kentucky.

In a conference call with stock analysts about the Louisville-based racetrack and casino company’s 2013 fourth-quarter and full-year earnings, Churchill Downs Inc. COO Bill Carstanjen said that it’s “getting to crunch time of the session. We have some cause to be optimistic but our issues are wrapped up in other issues that can effect us that are hard to predict.”

Representatives of Kentucky Thoroughbred tracks and racing commission member Frank Jones met with state House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville, this week in a last-ditch effort to get his gambling bill moving through the General Assembly this year. Clark is scheduled to meet with them again on Friday.

Churchill CEO and chairman Bob Evans said Thursday that the Kentucky Wins campaign that Evans co-chairs has more than 71,000 followers on Facebook and in the past two weeks has generated more than 6,000 emails and 1,700 phone calls to Kentucky state legislators in favor of expanded gambling.

Churchill leaders said they remain uninterested in instant racing as a potential substitute if slots are not legalized but continue to monitor the ongoing lawsuit, which the Kentucky Supreme Court last week sent back to Franklin Circuit Court for discovery on whether the games are pari-mutuel.

“What we’ve said for our company is we want all the ambiguities resolved by the court before would seriously look at it,” Carstanjen said.

Churchill thinks the machines “may do OK in markets where there aren’t slot machines nearby but in a competitive market like Louisville these aren’t likely to fair well compared to full slot machine offerings,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine these machines are of real interest to us.”

Since the instant racing games began in September 2011, more than $573 million has been wagered, but the vast majority of it has come from one track near Tennessee, which has no casino gambling.

This month, Ellis Park in Henderson asked the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for permission to move 50 terminals that were not being “utilized to their potential” to Kentucky Downs in Franklin, where revenue from instant racing machines has been much greater.

Churchill said that horse racing, with a few exceptions, continues to struggle financially. Figures Churchill reported Wednesday show that in 2013, for the first time, their casinos generated more revenue than their tracks.

Churchill leaders said that the Louisville track is their only racing property that improved year over year; revenue rose 7 percent with a successful Kentucky Derby and Oaks week in May and a new September meet.

To capitalize on the Derby momentum, Churchill is adding an enormous video board and has added new seating areas that are already sold out. The video board, which will feature special programming as well as the actual races, has one sponsor; Evans said more are expected.

“Once people see how big it is and the impact on the live crowd, I think there will be a lot of interest going forward,” he said.

Evans said that Churchill also has signed a new Derby and Oaks sponsorship deal that will be announced in coming weeks.

Churchill announced Wednesday a new 10-year broadcasting contract with NBC that will generate growing revenue in coming years.

He did not disclose a specific dollar figure for the deal but said: “The market for sports media rights is extremely strong right now, and this reflects those market forces.”

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/02/27/3111475/churchill-downs-is-optimistic.html