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Planning to Build New Track, Churchill Downs Will Apply for Turfway Dates

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Turfway Park | Coady

At Friday’s meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Churchill Downs will apply for the 2020 dates that had traditionally gone to Turfway Park.

The story, which was broken by the Daily Racing Form‘s Matt Hegarty, was later confirmed by Churchill Downs through a press release.

Churchill’s plan is to build a new racetrack in Northern Kentucky that would likely replace Turfway. Churchill would race in the winter while the new facility is being built. The DRF said the new track could be ready to host some dates by 2021.

The Churchill release read: “Churchill Downs Incorporated (“CDI” or “the Company”) (Nasdaq: CHDN) announced today that it will file an application with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (“KHRC”) requesting to host a 2020 winter Thoroughbred racing meet at historic Churchill Downs Racetrack (“CDRT”) in Louisville, Kentucky as the Company constructs New Latonia Racing & Gaming (“New Latonia”), an up to $200-million proposed live and historical racing and year-round training facility in northern Kentucky, to host Thoroughbred racing in future years.”

At issue is Turfway’s failure to install Historical Horse Racing (HHR) machines. The machines, which are similar to slot machines, are being used to bolster purses and other revenues at every track in Kentucky but Turfway. The machines have allowed Kentucky Downs to average $2.3 million a day in purse money at its five-day meet and have also had a dramatic increase on purses at Churchill. Churchill’s machines, which are located at a separate facility called Derby City Gaming, which doubles as its Trackside training center, helped fuel $95,000 maiden special weight races and $104,000 allowance races at the spring meet.

“Churchill Downs is stepping up to protect and grow Kentucky’s Thoroughbred racing circuit,” said Kevin Flanery, President of CDRT, in the release. “Our willingness to make a sizeable investment in the neglected northern Kentucky market is our latest effort to improve Kentucky’s valuable horse racing and agriculture industries.”

The release said New Latonia Racing & Gaming would have 1,500 machines, a one-mile synthetic surface main track and an inner dirt track.

In April, JACK Entertainment announced that it had entered into an agreement to sell Turfway and Jack Cincinnati Casino to Hard Rock International. With Hard Rock owning a casino in nearby Cincinnati, its likely they do not want the HHR machines competing with the Ohio casino. Turfway Park is about 12 miles from Cincinnati.

When reached by the TDN, Turfway General Manager & Director of Operations Chip Bach said he had no comment on the Churchill proposal to take over Turfway’s dates.

Under JACK Entertainment management, Turfway has flirted with the idea of adding HHR machines, but has never followed through. Last December, it told the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that it hoped to have 350 machines up and running by June, but none were ever installed.

Many Kentucky racing stakeholders, including the racing commission and the horsemen, have been frustrated by Turfway’s failure to move forward because the machines have proved so successful in the state and have pumped millions into purse accounts.

In an ironic twist to this story, Churchill is being accused of doing exactly the same thing in Illinois that Hard Rock is allegedly doing in Kentucky, putting casino interests and profits ahead of horse racing. Churchill did not apply for slot machines at Arlington Park and said it would only commit to keeping the track open through the 2021 meet. Many believe that the reason they don’t want slots at Arlington is because that would hurt business at the Churchill-owned Rivers Casino, which is about 11 miles from Arlington.

But with Churchill not owning any casinos in the Northern Kentucky-Cincinnati market, a new track built in that area with HHR machines could turn out to be quite profitable for the casino-racing company while also bolstering Kentucky racing overall.

Should the KHRC give the dates to Churchill, that would likely mean the end of Turfway. Then called Latonia, the track opened in 1959.

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