Ron Geary doesn't have to look across the river to see trouble on the horizon. But that's only because Ellis Park is located on the north side of the Ohio, still in Kentucky but hard by Indiana.
As one of the 13 members of a task force recently appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear to look at nearly all aspects of the horse-racing industry in the Commonwealth, Geary sees the neighbors to his north as a suddenly serious threat.
Why? Because slot machines are now a part of the action at both Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park, steadily building up purse accounts that next year could dwarf the totals offered by Kentucky's two smaller facilities, Ellis Park and Turfway Park.
"What we want to make sure of, finally once and for all, is that everybody understands what a box they've got Ellis and Turfway and all of us in, by letting Indiana get their (alternative gambling) legislation passed before us," Geary said.
"Indiana was never competitive with Kentucky, but now it will be carrying a superior purse level. That's our immediate challenge at Ellis Park, but it's also something that will affect all of Kentucky."
For years, Churchill Downs has made most of its money in two days — the first Friday in May, when they run the Kentucky Oaks, and that first Saturday, for the Kentucky Derby.
Keeneland makes a mint with its thoroughbred sales, both yearlings and youngsters, paying for two short meets in the spring and the fall.
Ellis and Turfway, meantime, complete the Kentucky circuit with racing dates in the dog days of summer and the dead of winter. Ellis nearly shut down this summer because of a dispute over the funding of purses; Turfway's ontrack turnout is meager in a market saturated with River Downs to the northeast in Cincinnati.
While Beshear's mandate to his task force was wide-ranging — to examine industry economics, the quality of drug testing, the adequacy of state laws and regulations, and the role of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission — it also specifically requested feedback on "the need and opportunity for alternative forms of gambling."
Geary believes Kentucky has no choice but to pursue that direction even though opposition in the state legislature has kept it from even reaching referendum status.
"Not to be demeaning to Indiana, but now you've got some people who want to get their breeding done so they have Indiana breds (so they can run for designated purse money in the Hoosier State)," he said. "The same thing is happening at Pennsylvania, Delaware and some other states.
"The result, in my opinion, is there will be more and more horsemen, owners and trainers locating in other states, and that hurts Kentucky."
Geary, who joins four members of the KHRC plus representatives from Churchill, Keeneland and the Red Mile on the task force, has a stake in this fight. He claims to have lost $2.7 million running Ellis last year.
He says this meet is going better, but isn't releasing numbers to back up that statement. Ellis averages about $125,000 in purse money; the Indiana tracks, each of which will race an additional two weeks next year, figure to offer twice that amount. Even now, horsemen are leaving Kentucky for places like Mountaineer in West Virginia and Delaware Park, where purses are higher.
Beshear wants answers from his committee by Dec. 1. Geary said agendas are being set now, and the group will have answers in time — especially since they already have an idea what is needed. And if it's slots, that's a gamble Geary is more than eager to take.
"Basically, we're looking at the future of horse racing in Kentucky ... the home of horse racing," he said. "We've got to look at the current economic model, the current purse structure, and try something different to put us back on top."