Photos by Joe Clabes. Jeff Greenhill at Turfway Park above
By Joe Clabes
FLORENCE, Ky. (Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021) – As the Kentucky State Senate passed SB 120, Turfway Park horsemen are making their case for the importance of protecting Historical Horse Racing. They say protecting HHR, as it is known, is critical to saving Kentucky jobs, including their own.
HHR’s future in Kentucky is uncertain following an opinion issued by the Kentucky Supreme Court in September. At risk is a significant revenue stream that has produced some of the best racing purses in the country, prompted track owners to make considerable facility investments and bolstered a year-round racing circuit on which Kentucky horsemen have come to depend.
Trainer Buff Bradley, a Kentucky native, left the state 11 years ago to winter in Florida and then New Orleans because purses had gotten so bad at Turfway Park and to try to improve his stock. After purses increased last year, he convinced owners to stick around Kentucky.
“I was hoping Kentucky was going to be a stronger circuit, with Ellis doing well,” said Bradley. “It really looked like Turfway was going to be on the rise with Churchill buying it and purses increasing. Now I’m rethinking, ‘Uh oh. I came here and it might have been too soon,’ because things aren’t looking as well with Historic Horse Racing machines maybe not going through. That’s going to be the big question.
“Kentucky can be a great circuit,” he said. “I know last year everybody was thrilled. You’ve got owners who see a rising Kentucky, even with Ellis Park and Turfway’s purses being better, they can afford to stay around here. And they live here. If they can do that, they’re going to go to the sales and buy more horses. If we can keep more horses around here, we can keep everybody busy – more jobs. There’s a lot to it.”
Bradley employees 12 people in his 20-horse stable at Turfway. “The money has made a big difference,” he said. “It’s not like we’re getting rich off this, but it makes it affordable for people to stay and to meet people to buy horses. It’s become a year-round circuit in Kentucky, which is a big plus. Because you keep the people here. This is our home.
“If we don’t have HHR, I can see racing really decreasing here in the state. Horse racing will go down to Keeneland and Churchill basically. I can’t see how Turfway, Ellis Park – those two tracks for sure – and even Kentucky Downs could survive. We’d probably decrease the number of days even at Keeneland and Churchill. And when that happens, it’s tough to get stables to come in because there isn’t going to be much racing. They’re going to go to New York and Florida, areas where they have racing throughout the year.”
Groom Toni Ouzts, who has two children with her husband, jockey Perry Ouzts, is concerned that without passage of SB 120 life will be more difficult for them.
“I need this job,” she said. “It’s my livelihood. It’s my passion. I’d be lost without it. And my husband would be out of work, too, if we would not have Turfway Park.”
Asked about people who would say that HHR just makes rich people richer, she said, “No. This is keeping me in a job. It’s keeping my husband in a job, people I work with every day. We work seven days a week. This is more than a job. It’s everything. My sister and I work here ‘rubbing’ horses toge
ther. And even her husband works on the front side. It’s giving everyone a job.”
Turfway “gives so many people job,” she said. “So many people would be out of work. Just think of the hay and straw people, the feed man. There’s so much involved in horse racing. It’s not just the big guys.”
Trainer Jeff Greenhill left a career as chemical engineer in Alabama to go into horse racing. He’s been training about 25 years, wintering at Turfway Park throughout.
“This is the place that the little guy survives — here and Ellis Park,” Greenhill said. “There are 1,100 horses here, and I’ve got 18 and I have eight employees. You can do the math: There are a whole lot of people here employed by the horse-racing industry. Unless purses stay at a reasonable level, I’m out of business or I’m moving to New York, Florida or Indiana.”
Veterinarian John Piehowicz, who has served clients on the local racing circuit since the early 1990s, also sees difficult choices ahead without historic horse racing.
“If SB120 isn’t passed then I think this (Turfway Park) is done,” he said.
Piehowicz says racing “is the one industry where trickle-down economics works. If you look around the racetrack here, there are a lot of people who depend on the horses, depend on the income – whether it’s a Sunoco station around the corner where half the people who work here go and buy their snacks or the local community. When this place closes it’s going impact more than horse racing in the state of Kentucky.”
Sen. John Schickel, whose district includes Turfway, is the lead sponsor of SB 120. While the men and women on the backside at Turfway Park continued caring for their horses, the Kentucky Senate passed SB 120 by a vote of 22-15 paving the way for House consideration. The legislation is expected before the House Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee’s agenda on Wednesday.