Kentucky Downs, Caesars want new harness tracks, hundreds more gambling terminals

A rendering of Oak Grove Meadows, Kentucky Downs’ proposed harness track and gambling parlor for the town near Fort Campbell.
A rendering of Oak Grove Meadows, Kentucky Downs’ proposed harness track and gambling parlor for the town near Fort Campbell.

One way or another, it looks like Kentucky is about to get another harness track and hundreds more gambling terminals near Fort Campbell.

Kentucky Downs, the grass Thoroughbred track in Franklin, has applied for a license to open a harness track in Oak Grove, the same place where Churchill Downs and Keeneland jointly announced plans in September for a harness track. Oak Grove is located just outside Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

And, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, casino giant Caesars, which owns Bluegrass Downs harness track in Paducah, also has applied for the state’s ninth license, apparently to build in the same general location.

All of the plans could be on the agenda for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s race dates committee, which meets Tuesday at the Kentucky Horse Park, to consider in setting the 2019 racing calendar.

The draw isn’t really harness racing but the historical racing terminals that the tracks can put in.

In a press release, Kentucky Downs said it proposes to spend $45 million to build Oak Grove Meadows on 80 acres near the intersection of I-24 and US 41-A with 15 days of racing in the fall and 500 Exacta Systems gambling terminals operating year-round.

Kentucky Downs also plans to double its own footprint, with a $25 million expansion that would add 800 gambling terminals (which would double what it has now) in a new equestrian complex that eventually could include an indoor area and an eventing course in the infield, as well as other amenities.

“We appreciate the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission opening up applications for new licenses,” said Corey Johnsen, president of Kentucky Downs. “For a number of years we have been working with the Kentucky Harness Horsemen’s Association and the City of Oak Grove to fill a void in the standardbred circuit and to create an entertainment and tourist destination in southwest Kentucky that complements existing businesses and enterprises.”

Johnsen’s proposed new harness track will ask for 15 days of racing in 2019, from Oct. 11 to Nov. 10.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland’s proposed $125 million Christian County track wouldn’t open until 2020 so they are jointly requesting a 10-day harness racing meet at Louisville Downs for 2019, with 15 permanent dates at the new track in 2020.

Their project would include a gambling parlor with 1,500 historical racing machines, which are similar to slot machines but winners are determined by previously run horse races. As of September, Kentucky had 2,734 gambling terminals at the Red Mile in Lexington, Derby City Gaming in Louisville, Ellis Park in Henderson and Kentucky Downs in Franklin. Since the games went online, they have generated more than $20 million for the Kentucky general fund, plus millions more for Kentucky racing purses. Most of the $4 billion wagered has been returned to players in the form of winnings.

Historical horse racing has been challenged by the conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky, which contends the games are not truly pari-mutuel. The case is pending in Franklin Circuit Court.

The racing commission must set the next year’s racing calendar in the fall; no details were immediately available on Caesars’ proposed track or dates requested.

The state’s harness racing circuit lost dates with the closure of Thunder Ridge in Prestonsburg. Last year, Keeneland proposed moving that license to Corbin to build another track with additional gambling terminals but the racing commission did not take up that proposal for consideration.

The racing commission is scheduled to meet later this month.