FRANKLIN — Expanded gambling is thundering down the homestretch at Kentucky Downs.
After a ceremonial ribbon-cutting Thursday, the state's first instant racing parlor will open for play at 10 a.m.
Since mid-July, the ground floor of the southern Kentucky track's grandstand has undergone a $3 million transformation from simulcasting parlor to a musical neon betting playground, with chimes that sound like fairy wands.
Corey Johnsen, Kentucky Downs' president, said he hopes the effect will be magical for Kentucky horse racing.
"I believe this is a historic moment for the Kentucky horse industry, which has been facing stiff competition from states that fund purses from gaming revenue," he said Wednesday as a news conference. "This new product offering will have a major economic impact."
Johnsen is trying to minimize expectations: He said he has no idea how many people will show up to play or how much they are likely to bet.
He said he thinks the track will easily reap $5 million in expanded gambling revenue over the next year, which would allow Kentucky Downs to raise purses by at least $250,000 a day and add two more days of live racing.
Kentucky Downs, the state's only all-grass track, runs only four days of live racing this year and will offer about $700,000 in purses. But Johnsen said he thinks that instant racing can double that, and bring "millions" in tax revenue and "millions" for purses and breeders' incentives. The deal Kentucky Downs signed with horsemen's groups allows them to take anything over that $250,000 and spread it around to other tracks in the state to boost purses elsewhere.
Betting on historical races must still survive a court challenge from The Family Foundation, which contends the betting is not pari-mutuel because players are betting on different horse races that have all already been run.
At a press conference Wednesday afternoon in Frankfort, Kent Ostrander, executive director of the conservative group, called it "the eve of an extremely sobering day in the history of the commonwealth." He said instant racing is not only the introduction of expanded gambling to the state, "but even more importantly, the deliberate circumvention of the rule of law by individuals at the highest levels of Kentucky government."
But all that will be incidental to players who show up at Kentucky Downs on Thursday: They may be betting on horse races and the money may all go into pools, but the games feel like electronic slot machines.
The 200 machines play six different games with names like Cash Carnival or Yukon Willie's Gold Rush, with betting levels from 10 cents to $1. Everybody playing a particular type of game is playing against the others; whoever hits the jackpot first gets the most money.
Experienced players "pool shop," watching for games that haven't hit in a while, with big money building up like a huge Pick Six carryover.
Players can place up to five bets at once and can ask to look at handicapping information to pick the three horses to bet on by number. The machine will display three pie charts of info such as trainers' winning percentage or jockeys' winning percentage.
Players can peek at that and pick their numbers or let the machine's "handi helper" make suggestions. Then they play the last three seconds of an anonymous race to see whether their numbers come up gold nuggets or ore carts or pick axes (symbolic for win, place and show).
But most don't bother doing their own handicapping, instead letting the machine do it for them, said Bobby Geiger, director of gaming at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., where the games were developed.
Most hit the little green button on the bottom left, "play max credit," that runs the whole drill for them.
"The players who prefer this flavor of ice cream like a faster pace," Geiger said Wednesday.
"Instant racing saved Oaklawn," Geiger said. In 2000, the track was fading fast, with gamblers heading to Tunica, Miss., and both gamblers and horses heading for Louisiana tracks with slots, like Fair Grounds.
This year, instant racing will contribute about a third of Oaklawn's $16 million in purses, he said. But it wasn't an immediate hit. The first versions of the game were much more like what they sound like: They showed an old race — the whole race — and looked like the self-serve betting terminals they are based on.
Now there are bells, whistles, pseudo spinning reels, balloons to pop, mountains to blow up and more. The race has been reduced to a 2-inch square that players have to work very hard to watch; the gold nuggets, meanwhile, are mesmerizing.
The game deliberately mimics popular features of electronic slots or video lottery terminals but must stay true to the pari-mutuel platform. Instead of random odds or a hugely complex algorithm determining the winner, it still all comes down to which horses won that unheralded race at, say, Blue Ribbon Downs in 1999.
"People who like this do not want to sit down with a Daily Racing Form and study the past performances," Geiger said. "This game's not built for the guy in the simulcasting room. That guy's not going to like it. ... We didn't create this to pull people out of the grandstand."
Geiger said the games appeal to people who want to have a couple of hours of entertainment for $40. He said players who ignore the handicapping data entirely and pick random numbers will win about one time out of 10.
"The 'handi helper' wins one out of every seven times," he said. Top players tend to look at the handicapping suggestions and tweak them with their own picks.
But that takes time. Those who like fast play just hit that green button.
And at $5 a poke, it can go fast. Playing with a fake money voucher, Yukon Willie swiped $100 in about 15 minutes.
Thursday, the money will be real, and Johnsen will be waiting to see whether locals — or preferably busloads of people from nearby Tennessee, where pretty much all forms of gambling are illegal — find the games fun to play whether they are winning or losing.
And it can be hard to tell: It sounds like somebody's winning even when nobody's playing the machine.
Test runs with fellow horse industry people, including members of the Kentucky Equine Education Project that Johnsen now chairs, have looked positive, he said.
"We are having a party but we don't know how many people will show up," Johnsen said. "I don't plan to judge instant racing on the first few weeks. We are taking a conservative approach. I just don't know at this time. Hundreds could walk through the door, but I'm really not sure."