Racing commission grants one gambling parlor request but not from Keeneland

This rendering shows how Turfway Park plans to renovate to include at least 250 historical wagering machines in its grandstand.
This rendering shows how Turfway Park plans to renovate to include at least 250 historical wagering machines in its grandstand. Photo provided

In the last meeting under Gov. Steve Beshear, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday granted approval for historical racing at a fourth location but was blocked from action that would have created a fifth gambling parlor.

The commission approved a plan for Turfway Park to put in at least 250 historical wagering machines in the grandstand. The approval was conditioned on the Florence track, which is owned by Rock Gaming and Keeneland, meeting regulatory requirements for security and other arrangements.

Turfway’s plans are still in early planning stages, said Adam Suliman, director of business consulting with Rock Gaming. No dollar figure or timeline for the project was available. Turfway has not selected a vendor for the machines but said the track would implement only games that already have been approved by the commission.

The racing commission had planned to vote on whether to issue the state’s ninth and final racetrack license to Keeneland, which plans to build a $30 million quarter horse track to be called Cumberland Run in Corbin along with a 350-machine gambling parlor.

But Tuesday morning, Floyd Circuit Judge Johnny Ray Harris granted a temporary restraining order to Floyd County and Appalachian Racing, which owns the harness track in Prestonsburg. For more than a year, Keeneland sought to buy the Prestonsburg license and move it to Corbin, but last month Keeneland requested the unassigned license instead.

Floyd County, which built the Prestonsburg facility, owes more than $2 million on bonds that are due in May. The county and Appalachian Racing requested a permanent injunction to bar the state from issuing the Cumberland Run license. A hearing on the injunction is scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 12.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Kentucky Court of Appeals declined to intervene on the restraining order but said that the racing commission probably would succeed in getting it lifted.

The license has become a political bone of contention between Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, who supports the Corbin track, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, who has pre-filed legislation to force Keeneland to assume the Floyd County debt.

Keith Bartley, Floyd County Attorney, argued that the racing commission must consider the effect, including the financial impact to Floyd County, of granting the Corbin license. With the Court of Appeals letting the restraining order stand, the county will have the chance to intervene in Keeneland’s license application and testify to the commission.

“They don’t get to just sneak one by,” Bartley said.

If Keeneland gets the license with no provision to pay the off bond, the “$2.2 million bankrupts Floyd County,” he said.

However, it might be up to a different racing commission to decide how to proceed: chairman Bob Beck announced his resignation effective Dec. 7, Beshear’s last day in office.

Gov.-elect Matt Bevin has not announced any changes to the racing commission, but previous administrations traditionally have reconstituted the regulatory body with new appointees and sometimes new hires to non-merit state positions.

Beck, who has been the racing commission chairman throughout the Beshear administration, gave an emotional farewell to the members and staff, noting as accomplishments the implementation of historical wagering, which Beck called “one of the most important projects of the racing commission in the last seven and three-quarters years.”

Historical wagering, which is often called instant racing, is “slotslike” gambling with the winners determined by the outcome of a previously run horse race. The legality of the games has been challenged by the conservative Family Foundation.

However, the games have been in operation since 2011, with more than $1 billion in handle and $4.4 million generated for the state’s general fund.

“I think everybody in the industry would agree historical racing has been a success and has helped the overall health of the industry,” Beck said.