Keeneland moving forward with plans for Corbin track by 2016

Keeneland will move forward with the purchase of Prestonsburg's Thunder Ridge's racing license without a partner — for now.

At Tuesday's Kentucky Horse Racing Commission meeting, Keeneland vice president Vince Gabbert said an agreement in principle was in place to acquire Thunder Ridge's license from Appalachian Racing. Keeneland plans to move the track to the Corbin area and race Quarter Horses, as well as install an instant racing betting parlor.

The move could clear the way for the Corbin track to be racing by 2016.

"We're moving forward with the initial acquisition of the assets on our own and figuring out what the partnership arrangement looks like beyond that from there," Gabbert said. "Mostly to control our own destiny. Keeneland, as we've found in other ventures, sometimes we're better suited to beginning those journeys on our own and work on the partnership landscape as we move forward. It was just a business decision from our standpoint to move forward on our own."

Keeneland doesn't need a partner financially and Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts "will not be an applicant on the change of control," Gabbert said.

Keeneland would apply for a change of control "in days" and hopes to be on the agenda for the racing commission's November meeting, he said.

Gabbert didn't rule out taking on a partner after the purchase is completed; any partner with a significant stake would have to be approved by the racing commission.

In February 2013, the Herald-Leader reported that Keeneland planned to team with Full House Resorts to buy the Prestonsburg harness track for an undisclosed price and reinvent it as a Keeneland-esque facility for Eastern Kentucky.

But there has been no movement on the purchase, which came under scrutiny this month as the racing commission began setting the 2015 racing calendar.

Officials with Thunder Ridge requested 21 days of racing, but the committee initially balked because the track has so little live betting. The race dates committee requested more information about the financial situation at the track, which is said to be in disrepair.

On Tuesday, racing commissioner Alan Leavitt said that the Eastern Kentucky track "hasn't mowed the grass since the Ming Dynasty" and that patrons have been bitten by snakes.

John Ward, executive director of the racing commission, said last week that questions had been raised about Keeneland's potential partner, Full House, which is in the midst of a struggle with shareholders who are trying to seize the company.

So Tuesday, Gabbert said Keene land was dropping Full House from its application for taking over ownership.

Also Tuesday, the racing commission approved the full racing calendar, including the harness racing dates at Thunder Ridge for 2015.

Leavitt voiced concern that the Kentucky Harness Horsemen's Association stands to lose financially with one of the state's only three harness tracks taken out of the running.

The group had kept Thunder Ridge going for years, Leavitt said. Gabe Prewitt of the group said they had given the track approximately $180,000 a year for 12 years to keep it afloat.

"That license, in all probability, wouldn't be alive today so that Keeneland could be buying it, and I'm not sure you're willing to make us part of the deal," Leavitt said.

"But to be fair to us, when that license is transferred, (Kentucky harness horsemen) should continue to get some benefit from the new track because if we hadn't supported that track, you'd have no license to buy. ... We should not be totally forgotten."