With instant racing, Kentucky Downs goes from sleepy track to very much alive

Revenue from instant racing machines has boosted purses to record levels at Kentucky Downs, which has added more machines and games.
Revenue from instant racing machines has boosted purses to record levels at Kentucky Downs, which has added more machines and games.

A year ago, Kentucky Downs in Franklin was a sleepy track, with only four days of turf racing a year on its unique "European-style" undulating turf track. Most of the year, the big draw was bingo.

"We had four days of lackluster racing," said Corey Johnsen, Kentucky Downs' president. "We were in a survival mode."

The bingo's still there, but since the arrival of another kind of game, called instant racing, the pace has quickened around the track.

Now, instead of four days for total purses of $717,000, there will be six days of racing — and some of the richest purses in North America: almost $2.5 million, a record for this southern Kentucky track surrounded by farmland.

"We're going to attract attention really from all over North America," Johnsen said. "Sometimes it takes a while to gain the attention of horsemen and players. ... I'm not setting my expectations too high this year. But I think it's going to set the stage for a tremendous 2013. ... Next year, we hope to run eight live race days."

Average daily purses will jump to $409,000 this year from $179,000 last September, and there will be five new stakes races that Kentucky Downs hopes will become important prep races for the Breeders' Cup Championships.

The big change has come from instant racing, the electronic betting machines that went online at Kentucky Downs a year ago. Crowds were light at first, but betting handle has steadily increased.

In instant racing, players bet on previously run horse races, using a small amount of data (such as the anonymous trainer's winning percentage) to pick a horse. The outcome is determined by which horse wins the race, but the games are built to mimic video lottery terminals or slot machines.

They work: Kentucky Downs started out with 200 machines and has already added 150 more. It has also more than doubled the types of games to keep customers happy.

Handle has soared from $4.3 million that first September to an expected $17 million in August.

"Our best month yet," Johnsen predicted. At that rate, he sees no reason Kentucky Downs could not have $200 million in annual handle next year. He has already hired 100 people, and more might be needed.

"We feel we've been able to help the Kentucky economy," he said. Instant racing has generated about a half-million dollars for the Kentucky General Fund alone and hundreds of thousands more for breeders' incentives, higher education and drug research.

The ripples from Franklin are far-reaching. More than $1 million from Kentucky Downs will be shoring up purses at Ellis Park, which opened its own instant racing games on Friday.

"I think they've been very successful at Kentucky Downs, and I'm looking forward to seeing the numbers at Ellis Park," said David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. "I'm expecting some good action over the Labor Day weekend."

Switzer said instant racing is not enough to compete with casino gambling at tracks in Pennsylvania and New York, "but it certainly is a boost in the right direction."

Kentucky Downs also has seen its off-track-betting handle increase 10 to 12 percent for the year, Johnsen said. That generates revenue for every Kentucky track that serves as a "host" track, he said, and that revenue has gone up 10 percent as well.

"So basically, instant racing is supporting all the tracks," Johnsen said.

With its instant racing parlor, Kentucky Downs has also created an entertainment venue that draws primarily from Tennessee, he said.

The momentum off and on track is picking up, Johnsen said. More gamblers are coming up nearby Interstate 65, and more trainers are coming down the road with horses.

Trainers like Wesley Ward, Tom Procter and Bill Mott, who might have run only one or two horses in Franklin in previous years, plan to ship in more this year, Johnsen said.

If the Kentucky Supreme Court rules that instant racing is legitimate, more Kentucky tracks might join in.

For now, Johnsen said, he sees "happy customers ... very exciting times." And hopeful horse trainers.

"We've got to increase the revenue in our horse industry," said Johnsen, who also is head of the Kentucky Equine Education Project. "We've got to get some more jobs back from New York and Pennsylvania."

He points to trainer Larry Jones, who kept his 50-horse stable at Delaware Park in recent years but has returned to Ellis Park this year.

"That's a small example, but there are hundreds like Larry Jones, able to stay home now," he said.

Jones, who trained 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, agreed.

"Purses are getting pretty substantial here," Jones said. "Kentucky's home. A lot of our owners are here. We had to leave for many years, but Kentucky Downs' pots are comparable to just about anywhere you want to run, except Saratoga, and Ellis Park is coming back. ... I wanted to get my foot in the door, reserve my barn."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader