Imagine a top-flight racetrack in Eastern Kentucky with all the glamour and prestige of a premier entertainment venue married to the speed and electricity of Quarter Horse racing.
Keeneland is envisioning just that.The Lexington Thoroughbred racetrack and sales company is teaming with Nevada-based Full House Resorts to buy the Thunder Ridge harness track in Prestonsburg for an undisclosed price and reinvent it as a Quarter Horse racetrack in the Corbin area.
They apparently filed paperwork with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Thursday on the potential change of ownership; all of the plans would be subject to regulatory approval and other factors.
No timetable has been set for buying, building or opening the as-yet-unnamed track.
"At this point, it's not a done deal. But we're excited about the opportunity and hope it comes to pass," said Bill May, attorney for Appalachian Racing, which owns Thunder Ridge.
"We think we're putting things forward that will be a great help to the industry and the sport," Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason said in an exclusive interview with the Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com. "We're looking to the long term, looking to do something big, and it will be special. ... We think the community will embrace it and enjoy it and it will provide economic gains."
Keeneland leaders said they want to build a "Keeneland-esque" facility to run a boutique Quarter Horse meet of about a dozen race dates in the summer, with top-level purses boosted by multibreed simulcasting and instant racing, electronic slots-like wagering based on previously run races.
"We're going to build a modern facility, scaled to the market ... that will grow to meet the demands of the area," Thomason said.
State Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, on Thursday called it "a smart move" on Keeneland's part.
"I think Keeneland should be lauded for its desire to take the Keeneland model and bring in a new partner and build a new racing and simulcasting facility in Kentucky," Thayer said. "Don't see many people building new racetracks these days. ... There is pent-up demand for race dates, Quarter Horses in this part of the country who want to run, and fans who will come to see them race."
Thayer said this could stimulate Quarter Horse breeding and perhaps even expand to sales. "I believe there is a market for Quarter Horse racing in Kentucky," he said.
Instant racing growth?
It also could bring on a major expansion in "historical wagering," as instant racing is called. So far, it has been installed at two Kentucky tracks: Kentucky Downs in Franklin and Ellis Park in Henderson.
Keeneland and Full House say that the scope of the potential facility has yet to be determined but that it likely would be at least as large as the 300-machine operation at Kentucky Downs, which has seen handle climb toward $20 million a month.
Thomason said plans had been under consideration for some time.
"We've been very conservative, watching historical racing. It's been successful at Kentucky Downs and at Ellis Park," he said. "We think it's shown to be a viable product, and it's a part of what we can do now."
Historical wagering was approved by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in July 2010, and Franklin Circuit Court ruled it was legal. The Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that opposes any expansion of gambling, has appealed the case, which is now before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Vince Gabbert, Keeneland vice president and COO, said legislation is expected to be filed early next week for legislative approval of instant racing, which likely would make the court case moot, and other tracks might soon join in.
In 2010, instant racing legislation foundered in the legislature, but Gabbert said that they are optimistic of chances now that it has been in operation successfully since September 2011.
If the legislation passes, or if the court case is decided in the racetracks' favor, Keene land anticipates announcing plans for a Lexington instant racing facility in conjunction with The Red Mile, likely at the harness track, Gabbert said.
Plans for moving and changing to a Quarter Horse track also would have to be approved by the racing commission.
"Nothing we've proposed has been met with opposition," Gabbert said. "They understand what we're trying to do."
Keeneland is looking at several undisclosed locations "in the south I-75 corridor," near Corbin, he said.
Keeneland would share ownership and operation of the facility with Full House, which operates casinos in Indiana, Nevada, Mississippi and New Mexico.
The scope of the project hasn't been determined, Keeneland and Full House said.
But "it's a casino-entertainment complex" with requisite amenities, said Jim Dacey, spokesman for Full House Resorts. "Together we'll develop a first-class operation."
Full House was founded by the late Allen Paulson, renowned Thoroughbred breeder and racehorse owner of Cigar, Arazi, Escena and others. It is a publicly traded company, and businessman Lee Iacocca is among its board members.
Full House also operates the casino at Rising Sun, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Northern Kentucky, with slots and table games. Dacey said that he thinks an instant racing-only facility can compete as long as "the playing field is level," meaning that there is no other casino competition in Kentucky.
Gov. Steve Beshear has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling in Kentucky at a restricted number of locations, but not necessarily at racetracks, which Keeneland and Kentucky Downs oppose but Churchill Downs supports.
Dacey said that the prospects for instant racing remain strong. More than $247 million has been wagered, with most of that returned to bettors in the form of winnings. About $3.7 million has been generated in tax revenue, and $2.5 million has been generated for purses and breeders' incentives.
"It's doing well in other locations," Dacey said. "The games are the games, but the environment, the people, the patron experience — that's what differentiates you."
Boon for Quarter Horses?
Quarter Horse representatives, who have been working with Keeneland since late last summer in an advisory capacity, are thrilled.
"We dreamed about this for quite a while," said Rich Wilcke, a member of the American Quarter Horse Association's national Racing Committee.
Wilcke, of Henry County, said that Quarter Horse racing was popular in Kentucky in the 1980s. As recently as 1988, an 81-day meet was held at Bluegrass Downs in Paducah and a 59-day meet was held at Riverside Downs in Henderson.
But changes in the regulatory and racetrack landscape left Quarter Horse racing out in the cold until 2004, when a token two-day meet began at The Red Mile.
"We didn't handle a lot of money, but we had huge crowds, 5,000-plus," Wilcke said.
Area leaders keen on plan
The Interstate 75 corridor is attractive because there is no racing in the region now, and it can attract summer vacationers in the Lake Cumberland area and tourists from Tennessee.
Knox County Judge-Executive J.M. Hall said Thursday that he hadn't heard of Keeneland's plans, but he quickly warmed to the idea.
"I would love to have a racetrack in Knox County. Like a Keeneland, here? If we have something here, we could pull in people from Tennessee," Hall said. "That would be pretty big."
Jerry Wayne Garland, owner of G&M Oil Co. in Corbin, said he has a prime spot, 100 acres right on Exit 29, where a truck stop used to be.
"We would love to see something like that in southeastern Kentucky, and it would be a wonderful venue for entertainment and be welcomed by the people here," Garland said. "I feel like we could reach out to Knoxville, to Chattanooga and even to the Carolinas."
COMPARING THE BREEDS
What's the difference between an American Quarter Horse and a Thoroughbred?
An American Quarter Horse is traditionally a short, stocky horse that is a specialized sprinter. They are the dragsters of the horse racing world. Horses run all-out at distances between 220 and 1,000 yards. American Quarter Horse races are measured in yards. The classic distance is 440 yards, or a quarter mile, which is originally where the horse drew its name.
A Thoroughbred is a tall, lanky horse that specializes in running longer distances. They commonly run between six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile) and two miles.