Keeneland and Churchill Downs on Friday won the right to jointly build and run a new harness racetrack and gambling parlor in Western Kentucky near Fort Campbell.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted 11-3 to award the first new racetrack license in nearly 25 years to the $150 million project for Oak Grove in Christian County over competing projects from Kentucky Downs in Franklin and Caesars-Bluegrass Downs in Paducah.
Churchill Downs and Keeneland, which owns only 5 percent of the project, will build a five-eighths of a mile harness track to host 12 days of standardbred racing as early as 2019.
They also plan to build a gambling parlor with up to 1,500 historical racing machines, which are similar to slot machines and have produced millions for purses and more than $21 million for the state since 2010. Kevin Flanery, Churchill Downs racetrack president, told The Blood-Horse that the gambling parlor would generate an estimated $10 million both Thoroughbred and standarbred purses in Kentucky.
The new track also will have a 125-room hotel with an event center and food and beverage venues, a 1,200-person seat-grandstand with event space for indoor events, a 3,000-person outdoor amphiteather and stage and a state-of-the-art equestrian center with indoor and outdoor arenas.
About 400 full- and part-time jobs will be created by the facility as well as an estimated 800 construction jobs, according to an a press release from Churchill Downs and Keeneland.
In 2017, Churchill and Keeneland jointly applied for two new racetracks: the Oak Grove facility and one in Corbin that Keeneland had been pursuing for years. It is unclear if Keeneland intends to move forward with the Corbin track as well.
The new Oak Grove track will be along I-24 on the Kentucky-Tennessee line, between Nashville and Hopkinsville, and near the popular Land Between the Lakes resort area.
The losing bidders for the track were quick to object to the process, with Kentucky Downs issuing a press release from its prospective new owners, Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone. Earlier in the week, racehorse owner Winchell (Gun Runner, Tapit) and former casino analyst and executive Falcone announced plans to purchase a majority interest the Franklin track along I-65 for an undisclosed price.
“We came into the process obviously very late. We were really trying to persuade people to give us more time,” said Winchell in a statement. “This decision, we felt, was very important and needed more time, the processing to be more well thought out. We’ver obviously very disappointed in the result. We’re happy and excited about what’s going on at Kentucky Downs and looking forward to the future.”
Falcone said the Franklin track increase a previously announced $25 million expansion to better compete with the new facility, which also will draw from the Nashville market.
“Now we know we have competition” in the market, Winchell said in the statement, “we’re going to gear up.”
According to published reports, Caesars Entertainment executive Dan Real also expressed frustration with losing the bid to Churchill and Keeneland. “They don’t have a signed horsemen’s agreement ... They don’t have the ability to do simulcasting, they don’t have any history, relationships, or marketing in the region, which obviously the other operators do,” Real told the Paulick Report.
Last month the Franklin Circuit Court ruled that one system of historical racing gambling machines was parimutuel and legal; the conservative Family Foundation has filed an appear of that decision. No ruling has been made on other types of machines.
Earlier this year, Churchill Downs opened its historical racing gambling parlor in Louisville. Keeneland the Red Mile operate one in Lexington and Ellis Park also has machines.