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Alternative Gaming at River Downs Could Lure Kentucky Horses

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Liane Crossley.


The concept is simple—offer big prize money and racehorses will come.

For Kentucky-based Thoroughbred owners and trainers, that often means venturing to other regions to capitalize on purses enhanced with revenue from casinos and other forms of gambling. Horses could soon have more options for lucrative paydays if new Ohio casinos direct money to River Downs near Cincinnati and the Buckeye state’s other tracks.

Construction is well under way for a racetrack and casino combination (also known as a racino) at River Downs that is scheduled to open in 2014, but the impact on Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry is largely unknown. This much is certain—if purses spike substantially, Kentucky Thoroughbreds will be there.



River Downs' old stable area has been demolished and a new one will be built. (Photo by MIchael Monks)

“Horsemen tend to gravitate towards bigger purses,” said Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and a trainer for more than 35 years. “We’ve lost a lot of Kentucky horsemen to various venues in other states.”

Hefty winnings are more than a short-term windfall for horse owners. Generous jackpots typically produce races brimming with competitive starters, and gamblers traditionally prefer betting on full fields of high-quality Thoroughbreds. Because some wagering dollars are poured back into the purse structure, future prize money remains high when wagering is high. The trickle down effect also is in play—an abundance of horses creates more jobs not only within the racing industry itself, but in other enterprises such as equine-related companies, area restaurants and other businesses.

Hiles’ role with the HBPA includes working with legislators on racing-related matters. Efforts in recent years to bring alternative gaming to the Bluegrass State to bolster the tracks’ purse structure have failed, forcing Thoroughbred owners to send their runners to tracks with inflated casino-fueled prize money. Some trainers and owners take their horses for long-term stays in Pennsylvania, while others make overnight or day trips to Indiana or West Virginia while remaining based in Kentucky.

Even a parking area beside the grandstand is being refurbished. (Photo by Michael Monks)

Although money remains lucrative each spring and fall at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, pots at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky and Ellis Park on the state’s western edge are a fraction of those in surrounding areas. For example, a Turfway Park race this past September for maidens (horses that have never won) offered $10,500 (excluding bonuses for Kentucky-born horses.) Comparable races at tracks in the Indianapolis suburbs are worth about $35,000 each. The difference is even more dramatic at Presque Isle Downs, 400 miles from Lexington in Erie, Penn., where a similar race carries $41,000 in prize money. At Mountaineer Casino and Racetrack in Chester, W.Va., 350 miles from Lexington, the disparity is less glaring but still considered worthy of a road trip with $17,600 available. Winners generally receive about 60 percent of the race purse with the remainder is divided among the others.

Hazy future tied to rich past

If Ohio follows the trend of boosting horse racing funds with alternative gaming revenue, Kentucky horsemen will have even more options. However, even if casino money is used to substantially boost horse racing funds, Ohio purses currently lag so far behind that they need a bounty to catch up. In September, maiden races in the state carried purses of about $6,000 each and other races were worth even less. How much and when money will be channeled to racing in Ohio is largely unknown pending approval from various regulatory bodies.

“At this time, we do not have any timelines or project plans to share,” said Kerry Andersen, corporate director of media relations and public affairs for Pinnacle Entertainment, which purchased River Downs two years ago. She said the company is expected to announce specific plans in late March for the more than $200 million property redevelopment. The Las Vegas-based company owns seven casinos and recently completed the acquisition of Retama Park, a horse-racing track near San Antonio, Texas.

During construction at River Down, which includes demolishing the grandstand and redoing both the dirt track and turf course, the traditional summer racing season is unlikely to be conducted. The lack of racing will have little effect on Kentucky owners and trainers because there are plenty of other options. Even those based at River Downs can still stay close to home by stabling at nearby Turfway Park, whose barn area will remain open when its racing season is on hiatus from April through August.

The dramatic changes at River Downs signal the end of a long era for a charming facility with untapped potential on the banks of the Ohio River in the midst of a sprawling suburbia. Situated between River Bend Music Center and the century-old Coney Island amusement park, Rivers Downs has a storied past and homespun appeal.

The track opened in the summer of 1925 and the first horse to ceremoniously gallop past the finish line was Black Gold, winner of the Kentucky Derby the previous year. Through the decades, famous horses competed there including the legendary Seabiscuit (twice) in 1936 and Spend a Buck, who won the Cradle Stakes in 1984 as a springboard to Kentucky Derby victory the next year.

River Downs also has served as a proving ground for young jockeys who soared to stardom, most notably Steve Cauthen who went on to capture the 1978 Triple Crown aboard Affirmed and be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1994. Trainers who rose to prominence after honing their skills at River Downs include Ken McPeek and Larry Jones, who later had horses finish second in the Kentucky Derby.

River Downs’ future as a one-stop hybrid of Thoroughbred racing and casino gambling could inadvertently improve Kentucky racing. Hiles, a longtime supporter of alternative gambling, said legislators will take notice.

“I think it will push them more [toward alternative gambling] but the problem being, we have casinos all around us—in Indiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and now Ohio. The [bill] always gets killed in the Senate. I think the House has gotten tired of fooling with it because it always got killed in the Senate.”

Regardless of the Ohio fallout, Hiles said any reaction might be far overdue.

We might be too late now,” he said. “In the 1990s, I sat down with Gov. [Paul] Patton and we had the votes in the House and the Senate [for expanded gaming]. But at the time we couldn’t get the Kentucky breeders to go along with us. If it wasn’t for that, we would have had this back in the ’90s.”

Photo: River Downs clubhouse, the only building not to be razed during construction/RCN for KY Forward