Kentucky Turf War: Churchill Downs versus Turfway Park

Turfway Park wants to stay in Northern Kentucky, but CDI wants in, too

By John Furgele

When it comes to horse racing, there is no bigger name than Churchill Downs. When you hear those two words, you think first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby.

But there is more to that famous name. Churchill Downs Incorporated is a company that not only owns the famous racetrack in Louisville, they own 13 properties in all. It’s a publicly traded company on NASDAQ that wants to grow its brand.

On Sept. 5, CDI announced some big plans: it wants to race year-round in the Bluegrass State. They want to build a new racing and gaming facility in Northern Kentucky; they want to call it New Latonia Racing and Gaming, and they want to race there in the winter from December to March.

There is an obstacle — Turfway Park — the all-weather surface that has served Northern Kentucky for 60 years. That park is currently owned by JACK Entertainment, a CDI competitor and they, too, want to race from December to March like they have done for years. JACK is in the process of selling the track to Hard Rock International — a transaction that has not yet been completed which further complicates things.

CDI has applied to race this winter in Louisville at Churchill Downs while the new $200 million facility is constructed. In addition to the racetrack, there will be historical racing terminals on the premises, something Turfway Park doesn’t currently offer.

In 2015, Turfway Park was granted approval to add the historical racing machines, but they haven’t done so. Some say its politics; JACK Entertainment owns a casino nearby, in downtown Cincinnati, and many are of the belief that they haven’t added machines at the racetrack because of that.

CDI argues that the machines are essential and would add revenue, which would increase purses and secure horse racing’s stability in the state.

CDI says that if they gain approval, they will race the winter dates at Churchill Downs while the new facility is being built. The track would remain open year-round for training and would include an historical racing terminal facility with 1,500 machines, a one-mile synthetic main race track, an inner dirt track, a stable area, and a clubhouse with food and beverage venues.

Because it would race in the winter, there wouldn’t be a turf course, reminding some of Aqueduct, which raced on a winterized inner dirt track for 40 years until it was removed for a turf course in 2017.

Naturally, the folks at Turfway Park are not happy. The track normally races December to March and they have already been approved to race in December of this year. But, the January to March dates have not been awarded and CDI has applied for them as well as for December 2020. If CDI gains approval, they plan to race at the new facility from December to March.

What’s the right thing to do? Is it fair for CDI to come to Northern Kentucky and essentially take away racing from Turfway Park? Or, is this capitalism in its purest form; if CDI can come in, builds a new facility and offers more purse money to the horsemen, why shouldn’t they get the license?

We know how important horse racing is to Kentucky. They believe they’re number one for racing, breeding and for the beautiful horse farms and parks that adorn the state. They know what they’re up against. Saratoga and Belmont (operated by the New York Racing Association) offer the best purses, and California weather is ideal for year-round racing.  CDI is thinking long-term and like New York and California wants a year-round racing presence.

On the other hand, Turfway Park has served the sport well. While the bigger names flock to Gulfstream Park in Florida, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Santa Anita in California in the winter, Turfway Park has been home for the little guy and the smaller operations trying to make a living.

The comment boards, as you might imagine, are split over this. While many agree CDI is a corporate giant that cares about its bottom line, they accept that because the goal of any company is to produce a good product, generate revenue and maximize profits.

Some are critical of Turfway Park, accusing them of dragging their feet. Why hasn’t the track installed the historical racing machines? Why haven’t they talked about their vision for the future? Many think the place has been neglected and needs substantial repairs.

This will be a tough decision for Kentucky lawmakers. To me, it makes sense to build a new state-of-the-art facility. Also, sports gambling is upon us, and before long any state that wants it will have it. It would surprise no one if CDI partnered with a sports book that would allow bettors to wager on horse racing as well as football and other sports, all in one luxurious facility.

It’s tough to let go and while nobody wants to see Turfway Park get the squeeze, they need to come up with a plan that is convincing enough to get the lawmakers to approve it; right now, their only defense seems to be that “they have hosted winter racing for 60 years.” That might not be good enough and it’s something we have seen at Pimlico. Many want Pimlico to stay open and for the Preakness to remain there, but there is no plan to fix the dilapidated facility.

Eventually it comes down to money and a plan. We know that CDI has the money and right now, they have a plan and I’m sure that they have a pretty good lobbying group as well. At the quarter-pole, they’re in the lead. Let’s see how Turfway Park fights back.  Let’s see what their plan is for Northern Kentucky racing and gaming.

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