Wednesday, January 16, 1997
Tough times test Turfway

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gerry Kramer says Turfway Park has never been friendlier, and that's the bad news. Business has fallen off so sharply at the Northern Kentucky track that the mutuel clerks may soon know all of their customers on a first-name basis.

''It is depressing for me to be here,'' Kramer said Wednesday afternoon. ''It's not exciting when people get here. It's like going to a dance in a room built for 1,000 people and there are 50 people there.''

This is the winter of discontent at Jerry Carroll's equine establishment. Ohio tracks have started full-card simulcasting. Nearby Lawrenceburg, Ind., has gained riverboat gambling. Attendance was down 38 percent during Turfway's recent holiday meet, and a flawed weather forecast caused cancellation of the fourth straight race program Wednesday night.

Carroll has recently been confronted by a horse of a different color: red ink.

''I've always made better progress in hard times than I have when times are good,'' Carroll said. ''So I ought to be doing really good right now. This is a bigger hurt than I've ever felt.''

It is against our policy to bemoan the plight of millionaires, but the recent downturn at Turfway has had a harsh trickle-down effect. When operating at peak capacity, roughly 500 people draw a paycheck from the track. Lately, a skeleton crew has sufficed. If there's any further downsizing, Turfway may soon be racing Shetland ponies.

HD:How about trying new tack?

Gerry Kramer, who started behind the mutuel windows in 1959, says some of the clerks with the least seniority have worked so little of late that they have begun to seek other jobs.

''If you're fairly new, you're lucky if you can work Saturday and Sunday,'' Kramer said. ''A lot of people who were working four or five days based on their seniority are not working at all.''

Carroll has used the recent change in his fortunes to lobby Kentucky lawmakers for permission to install video gambling terminals at the track. The prospects are not promising.

It is at best specious to suggest that the reach of gambling be extended because it has been allowed to grow in an adjoining state. Just because brothels are permitted in parts of Nevada does not make it incumbent on California to legalize prostitution.

Better to force racetracks to reinvent themselves than to encourage them to broaden gambling's pernicious base. Better policy. Better, potentially, for business.

HD:Destination location

Jerry Carroll has not missed the meaning of recent developments in Las Vegas. He has seen the trend toward making gambling a part of a more diverse entertainment package, and he is taking steps to turn Turfway into ''a point of destination.''

He has already announced his intent to open a live country-music venue. He also has ideas about bowling and other family-oriented recreation. Like most men who make money from gambling, Jerry Carroll knows when to hedge his bets.

''This didn't hit us by surprise,'' he said. ''We knew the riverboats were coming and we knew all the racetracks across the country have taken a hit whenever a casino goes up. I'm not bitter about that. Hell, that's competition. What we've got to do is adapt to the competition.''

Short-term, Turfway will try to compete with earlier (5:30 p.m.) post times on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Next week, patrons who show up on those evenings will benefit from free admission and parking.

''When your back's against the wall, you've got to try everything,'' Gerry Kramer said. ''I thought horse players were kind of a breed of their own, and this casino was not going to be this tough on us. Our marketers all told us I was wrong, and they have convinced me. Mr. Carroll's money could never catch up with the harm that's been done.''

Never is a long time, of course, and Jerry Carroll is a clever guy. If the odds are against him at present, it is a temporary condition. Like the weather.

''It seems they want to get everybody hyped up for the worst,'' Carroll said of local meteorologists. ''And when the worst doesn't happen, the only winner is Kroger.''