FRANKLIN — "And they're off!" With that cry, Steve Thurmond, executive director of the Franklin-Simpson Chamber of Commerce, officially opened Kentucky Downs for expanded gambling Thursday.
Track president Corey Johnsen ushered in a crowd of about 50, many from the team that helped him pull together a new casino floor in less than two months. There are no signs up, and Kentucky Downs has yet to roll out marketing, but that will come.
Even so, at least a dozen would-be players were waiting for the doors to open, and they took to the floor to inspect instant racing games, dodging ladders and workers completing last-minute work.
A few players had attended invitation-only pre-opening receptions this week and had an idea of how the games worked; others were more used to electronic slots such as those in Metropolis, Ill., or Tunica, Miss.
Instant racing, or "historical wagering," was approved less than 14 months ago by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. It allows gamblers to pick the horses that come in first, second and third in a previously run race. Although the payoff is based on who won the race, the game is much more focused on lining up, say, gold nuggets or teddy bears.
"It's a slot machine. They can call it what they want," said Robert Janco, who drove up from Gallatin, Tenn., to play. He has been coming to Kentucky Downs for 20 years and is glad to see the track, which has live racing only four days a year right now, get a face lift and a shot in the arm.
"I hope it works because I like the horse racing. If it will help keep it, I'm hoping it works," Janco said.
Lewis Thomas of Nashville comes up to play the horses in the simulcasting room, and he said that's where he'll stay.
"To me, the payoff is not worth the money you put in," Thomas said of instant racing. "I prefer to put my $2 on my horses up here. It seems like you have more control."
But the payoffs can be big on instant racing, too, particularly if the jackpot builds.
Richard Becker of Goodlettsville, Tenn., sat down at a 10-cent machine, put in a $20 bill, and 20 minutes later hit a $417.20 jackpot.
He said that he and his wife, Barbara, who come to Franklin to play bingo, plan to add instant racing to their routine.
Johnsen, the track president, has done his best to build positive community feeling into the opening, hiring more than 85 locals to serve drinks, cash vouchers and work the floor. The track put $3 million into a renovated gambling parlor on the grandstand's ground floor and installed 200 leased machines. But if the money rolls in — and the games survive a court challenge — Johnsen says he is prepared to expand to 500 machines, at least.
Ron Geary, owner of Ellis Park in Henderson, has said he is likely to apply in October for racing commission approval to install the machines.
The Red Mile in Lexington probably will follow if the court upholds a ruling that the wagering is pari-mutuel. Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky and Churchill Downs in Louisville, which have growing competition from mature casinos across the Ohio River, are watching carefully.
Patrick Neely, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, said instant racing won't save racing but it will provide a "badly needed boost of revenue."
Enough, the horse industry hopes, to tide it over while it continues to pursue casino gambling in Frankfort.
"I don't think anyone believes instant racing will level the competitive playing field the same way full-scale casino gambling would. But it does serve as an excellent placeholder," Neely said. "It will be interesting to find out if it can compete in places like Cincinnati and Louisville."
In Franklin, barely across the state line from Tennessee — which has only a state lottery — gamblers were welcoming instant racing with open wallets.
Gloria Mantlo of Franklin, a self-described casino freak, had tried the instant racing game called "Cruisin for Cash" and was looking around for another one to sample. Asked how she liked it, she said, "I won," holding up a $4 voucher. How much did she bet? $20.
"It was fun," Mantlo said. "We've finally got something to do in Franklin, Kentucky, besides twiddling our thumbs."
Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.