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Photos: Governor, Local Leaders Top Off Churchill's Revitalized Turfway

A topping-off ceremony was held Friday as part of the $145 million of the former Turfway Park, the Florence racetrack that is set to reopen as Turfway Park Racing & Gaming following its purchase and investment by Churchill Downs.

Governor Andy Beshear, local state lawmakers, and county and city officials joined in the ceremony on Friday, along with horse racing analyst and race caller Mike Battaglia, and Cincinnati restaurateur Jeff Ruby, who has sponsored Turfway's signature race, the Jeff Ruby Steaks/Stakes.

"This is an exciting day," Beshear said. "This is our time."

He talked about Turfway Park being an economic engine for this area for a long time, and said that in a one-mile circle of the park there has been the announcement of 2,400 full time jobs just in the last few months.

"Northern Kentucky certainly has it going on, and we're seeing more and more companies, and more opportunities looking right here," Beshear said.

He traced the history of the race track, from its inception in 1959, and said that this time next year the area will see a state of the art facility that has both live and historical horse racing.

“This project will revitalize the Kentucky winter Thoroughbred racing circuit as well as fuel the health of the Commonwealth’s entire signature horse industry,” said Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen. “Despite challenges over the past year, we are still on schedule to open Turfway Racing & Gaming next year and I couldn’t be more proud of our team for persevering to accomplish this milestone. We couldn’t celebrate a day like this without thanking all the people who helped make this possible including many in the Florence community, our state leaders in the legislature and, of course, Governor Beshear who remains a staunch supporter of this industry.”

Churchill acquired Turfway Park in October 2019 and immediately commenced demolition of the existing grandstand following the close of the 2019-2020 race meet. In March 2020, Turfway’s existing Polytrack was replaced with a new $5.6 million Tapeta synthetic track, one of the world’s leading surfaces for racing and training. In March 2021, the new owner broke ground on the final phase of development and construction which will include a new grandstand, a pari-mutuel gaming entertainment floor featuring up to 1,500 historical racing machines, a state-of-the-art clubhouse, the largest simulcast wagering area in the state with VIP player amenities, an 18,500 sq. ft. event center, as well as several food and beverage venues.

The redevelopment of Turfway is anticipated to support up to 400 direct full and part-time positions and create an estimated 800 direct construction jobs.

Turfway will continue to host live thoroughbred racing for the holiday meet in December followed by their winter/spring in January through March 2022. The grand opening for Historical Horse Racing at Turfway is expected in the summer of 2022.

State Senator John Schickel (R-Union) sponsored legislation that cleared the way for historical horse racing in Kentucky.

"Around 1987, I was a rather young man on the Florence Police Department, and I was out here for a big political event, I believe it was Bill McBee's Bean Bash," Schickel remembered. "And I saw a helicopter carrying the governor land in the parking lot, I believe it was John Y. Brown. Today as I was getting out of the car, I saw a helicopter carrying the governor, and that made me happy and proud. Because, let's face it folks, for quite a few years this place wasn't important enough for a helicopter to come here. 

"Today is the beginning of a new era, and we're all so happy."

He gave a shout out to State Senator Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) and State Rep. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger), and recognized Mike Battaglia and his sons.

Boone Co. Judge/Executive Gary Moore thanked Schickel, and also celebrated the county's growth in property value and the number of new hotels and motels.

Mayor Diane Whalen welcomed everyone to Florence, and again likened the project to a '20-year overnight success'.

"This is a diamond in the rough, and we are very appreciative to Churchill for polishing that diamond for Florence and Boone County," she said. "I'm committed to Northern Kentucky and I'm committed to Florence to keep this a premiere horse racing destination."

Rep. Koenig also spoke of the project, which he called 'great.'

"I love the fact that Churchill Downs wanted to invest in the community," he said. "This will be a first class facility, and Northern Kentucky deserves that."

A huge steel beam was outside the tent, festooned with a flag and a tree. The tree signifies good-luck to everyone within the building, as well as a safe job well done.

Everyone followed Beshear in signing the beam, which would go on to be lifted into place by a huge crane.

"This is going to be a destination," Beshear said. "I can't wait for the third day. The first day was back in March (for the groundbreaking), and this is the second day. But the third day is when we open up the doors and we can have a little fun!"

Story and photos by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor
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