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Three groups pitch new Kentucky harness racetrack

October 31, 2018
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Representatives of three associations hoping to build a new Standardbred racetrack in southwest Kentucky near the Tennessee border made presentations at a special meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) on Tuesday afternoon. The meeting lasted nearly five hours with no resolution as the KHRC members decided to defer voting on a final license approval for 30 days.

All three groups are hoping to build a facility in Oak Grove, with the sites all including an area for historical racing machines, which cleared a final hurdle last week when a Circuit County judge dismissed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the machines and that they are pari-mutuel in accordance to Kentucky law.

Keeneland Racecourse and Churchill Downs have banded together in a quest for the license, and while initial reports indicated a desire to race a short meet at Louisville Downs next year, that will not be the case. Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery stated the plans now call for 12 live racing days to be held at the new racetrack in Oak Grove.

Joined by Keeneland president Vince Gabbart, Flanery revealed plans to spend upwards of $150 million on the project, which would also include an area for 1,200-1,500 historical racing machines, a 125-room hotel and an equestrian center and amphitheater. This proposal was the only one of the three that did not include a barn area.
 
 
 
Representatives of Caesars Entertainment were up second and the group included Rick Moore, general manager at Hoosier Park, which recently was purchased by Caesars. In addition to Hoosier Park (and Indiana Grand) in Indiana, the company also owns Harrah's Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and Player's Bluegrass Downs in Paducah, also in the southwest corner of Kentucky.
 
Dan Real of Caesars revealed plans for "Harrah's Bluegrass" include spending of up to $140 million, and that does not include the future possibility of a hotel. Plans call for upwards of 1,500 historical racing machines, with projected revenue topping $1.3 billion, but that figure was questioned by KHRC members. KHRC chairman Franklin Kling Jr. noted the projections were double estimations at other proposed facilities. Plans call for a short race meet next October as well.

Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen went last and he noted "Oak Grove Meadows" was the only proposed group that had a signed agreement with the Kentucky Harness Horsemen's Association (KHHA).

"Bob and Gabe and I have had several discussions and it's exciting," said Johnsen, referring to KHHA president Bob Stewart and executive director Gabe Prewitt, who were both in attendance.
 
The Kentucky Downs agreement as well as the Caesars proposal provide that the first $3 million in historical racing machine revenue go to Standardbred horsemen and breeders with additional revenue split 50-50 between Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsemen. The KHHA also has a letter of intent signed with Caesars. The Churchill/Keeneland proposal calls for a 50-50 split of all revenue between Standardbred and Thoroughbred, and Flanery noted a letter of support for the project from The Red Mile.
 
Johnsen's proposal calls for spending $45 million to build the site, which includes historical racing machines but not a simulcast area due to Kentucky regulations that preclude racetracks within a 70-mile radius of other racetracks from having simulcasting. Kentucky Downs falls within that radius.

The track would be a five-eighths mile oval, just as the other two applicants. Oak Grove Meadows would have a 450-stall barn area and a 125-room hotel. Plans call for 15-30 days of racing next October.

Johnsen said as a result of Kentucky Downs—which handled more than $70 million in historical racing revenue in September alone and is by far the most successful site in the Bluegrass—being in close proximity, Oak Grove Meadows would have only 300 historical racing machines.

The applicants now have until Nov. 7 to submit any new information regarding their proposal, with Kling setting a deadline of 30 days for the KHRC to meet to vote on final approval. This would be the first new racetrack license awarded in Kentucky since the now-defunct Thunder Ridge in 1994. The applicants are all seeking to receive the license opened up with the closing of Thunder Ridge.

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