Racing commission approves Keeneland's control of Thunder Ridge

Keeneland moved a big step forward Tuesday with its plans to open a quarter horse track and gambling parlor in the Corbin area.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission unanimously approved a change of control that will allow Keeneland to take over the assets of Thunder Ridge.

Keeneland plans to move the track, owned by Murray Sinclaire's Appalachian Racing, from Prestonsburg and switch it from a harness track to quarter horse racing.

The commission still must approve other details in the process, such as the change in location, the dates and the change in horse breed.

But there are no major barriers to the plan going forward, said Vince Gabbert, Keeneland vice president. They hope to open the track for racing by summer 2016, he said.

"We've got a couple of locations pinpointed, focusing on one or two pieces we really like. It's in the Corbin area," Gabbert said.

That means that the 2015 live harness racing meet at Prestonsburg technically will be under the control of Keeneland, but Appalachian Racing apparently will run the meet.

"We felt like quarter horses were an unmet population in our state ... there's also a gap in the racing calendar, when they are moving from Ohio to Hialeah, (Fla.), that allows us to capitalize on that population moving through, down I-75," Gabbert told the commission. "It would be very limited racing, much like a Keeneland meet. We're not talking (major quarter horse tracks) Los Alamitos or Riudoso as far as the number of dates. We've worked closely with the quarter horse industry as well and they are extremely supportive."

Gabbert anticipates eight to 12 race dates on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Kentucky has offered a handful of Quarter horse races in recent years at The Red Mile.

Revenue from the Corbin track's historical or "instant" racing facility will be split 50-50 between Thoroughbreds and quarter horses.

They anticipate 500 to 700 instant racing terminals at Corbin, with slightly lower revenue than other facilities because the potential betting population is smaller, Gabbert said. Kentucky Downs in Franklin, near Nashville, generates about $1 million a day in wagering on the slots-like terminals, which use the outcome of previously run races to determine winners.

Harness horsemen are supportive, he said, and Keeneland will try to help them offset the loss of the Prestonsburg facility, one of only three harness tracks in Kentucky, although one that has generated very little, if any, income in recent years.

The Corbin facility will offer simulcasting, including of harness races, which could generate income for purses at other tracks, he added.

"Our goal at Keeneland, as with everything, is to do what's best for the industry as a whole, whether its quarter horses, Standardbreds or Thoroughbreds, we want the industry in the state to thrive," Gabbert said. "Part of that mission is to put on the best quality racing we can with whatever breed that means, but also put as much money in the purse structure at Keeneland."

Gabbert did not put a purchase price on the Thunder Ridge assets or say whether the Lexington track would have to pay off more than $2 million in public bonds issued by Floyd County in support of the track.

"I don't want to discuss any of the specifics of that deal," he said.

The racing commission also approved plans by Keeneland and The Red Mile to amend their historical wagering applications to reflect an agreement for a jointly operated facility with 1,000 terminals.

Plans for the joint facility at The Red Mile, just off South Broadway, now are to build a one-story 72,000-square-foot building on the front of the existing grandstand, with access to but no view of the track, said Red Mile president and CEO Joe Costa.

Also, there are plans to upgrade the simulcasting facility on the second floor of the grandstand. But Costa said The Red Mile had not reached an agreement with Keeneland to offer Thoroughbred simulcasting and only offer simulcasting only on harness racing, based on a previous agreement.

With two major new instant racing facilities in the state, revenue from expanded gambling is expected to grow significantly.

On Tuesday, Corey John sen, president of Kentucky Downs, presented a check to the Kentucky Breeders' Incentive Fund for nearly $200,000, similar to the amount his track contributed last year. Gambling on instant racing is up more than 11 percent this year, he said. Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park in Henderson are the only tracks now operating instant racing.

With the expansions planned by Keeneland, the state could see more than $1 million in breeders' incentive fund contributions in a few of years, Johnsen said.

Appeal expected of court ruling in steward case

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission discussed the John Veitch case in closed session but took no formal action.

Afterward, commission chairman Bob Beck said he thought the Public Protection Cabinet would file an appeal by the end of the week of last week's ruling by Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate, in which he said Veitch was improperly fired from his post as chief state steward.

Janet Patton