Churchill Downs is off and running Track aggressively broadens its focus


LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Churchill Downs Inc. had a busy week recently.

On Thursday, Sept. 30, Churchill submitted a proposal for a $68.3 million riverboat casino complex across the river in Jeffersonville, Ind. On Friday, Oct. 1, Churchill plopped down plans for a $35.7 million racetrack in Virginia.

While expansion plans might not continue to roll out at the pace of two a week, the trend is clear. Churchill, an aggressive company, is not going to sit home waiting for increased betting to expand its business and improve the bottom line.

"I can't tell you how hard our folks are working," Churchill president Tom Meeker said last week.

Churchill is a leader in an industry that often feels under siege these days. With video lottery terminals, casinos and Indiana gaming facilities popping up all over, many people in racing predict a dismal future for the sport that once had a virtual monopoly on legalized gambling.

Not so with Churchill. A world of expanding casinos presents an opportunity to Meeker, not a problem. "I have never been more optimistic about our industry than I am today," he said.

"Out of chaos sometimes comes some great opportunities. If you think positively and ferret out the opportunities, you're going to be successful," Meeker said.

The track in Virginia and riverboat in Indiana are only a part of the picture. Churchill also is working on gaining a share of the racing and simulcasting market in Indiana. That state recently approved parimutuel wagering, both on- and off-track. Churchill tried unsuccessfully to get the license to operate a track in Indiana.

Recently, though, Churchill made it clear that it still wants a piece of the action in the neighboring state. Churchill announced it had reached an agreement to lend $7 million to the Anderson Park Group Inc., which did get the license. More important, Churchill has the option of converting the loan into ownership. Ultimately Churchill has options to own up to 70 percent of Anderson Park Group. Churchill has said it is interested in exercising that option if Anderson Park gets the license to operate off-track Indiana betting sites.

Simulcasting is heavy on the minds of Churchill executives. The numbers explain why. Meeker told stockholders in June that total interstate simulcasting had grown from $300 million in 1990 to an estimated $1.3 billion or more this year. Clearly, it is a growth market.

"We've had people out in the market both domestically and internationally," Meeker said, looking for places to take Churchill's signal as well as that of other Kentucky tracks. In that regard, Meeker sees every new gambling location as an opportunity, another place where races can be simulcast.

Churchill wants to participate on both ends of the simulcasting market. While it is expanding the places Churchill sends its signal, Meeker made it clear that Churchill also wants to be able to receive more races for the hometown bettors.

Next spring, Churchill will ask the legislature for permission to bring in whole race cards from other states. Kentucky now allows some graded stakes races to be shown for bettors here, but not full cards.

If successful, Churchill will get much more use and profit from Sports Spectrum, the state-of-the-art betting facility Churchill made of the old Louisville Downs.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad