Churchill Downs Continues to Grow as Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Approves $46M Turfway Park Purchase

Posted on: October 8, 2019, 06:15h. 

Last updated on: October 8, 2019, 10:23h.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – As expected, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) on Tuesday approved the sale of Turfway Park by JACK Entertainment to Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI). The $46 million deal, which also involved Hard Rock International, now gives the Louisville-based gaming company two thoroughbred tracks in the Bluegrass State.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved Churchill Downs’ $46 million purchase of Turfway Park on Tuesday. The gaming company plans to invest $100 million in upgrades, including replacing the existing grandstand, shown above. (Image: WCPO/Scripps)

With it, Churchill Downs has put aside plans to build a rival track to Turfway in northern Kentucky, and will instead invest about $100 million in building a new grandstand and adding 1,500 historical horse racing (HHR) machines to the Florence venue by the summer of 2021. CDI announced those plans last month, as JACK looked to close the sale of Turfway to Hard Rock, which also purchased JACK’s Cincinnati casino.

The tri-party agreement was announced on Thursday,

I truly believe that this result is the right result for Kentucky, the right result for Kentucky horsemen, and the right result for the racing circuit in Kentucky,” said Kevin Flanery, who serves as the president for CDI’s namesake track in Louisville, to “So, we’re very excited about where we are right now.”

The KHRC’s unanimous approval at a specially called meeting at the Kentucky Horse Park means Churchill will take over Turfway in time for the track’s traditional December-March meet.

“It seals up the year-round circuit in Kentucky,” KHRC Executive Director Marc Guilfoil told “That’s as short and sweet as you can put it. That was the one piece that was missing, was the winter dates.”

Pushing for HHR in NKY

Getting HHR machines in northern Kentucky has been a priority for the KHRC.

“We gave the rights to that in December 2015,” Guilfoil said. “They haven’t been up there yet. It’s a nice marketplace up there.”

With Cincinnati right across the river, there is the JACK casino that’s re-branding to Hard Rock, as well as two racinos in Ohio. In addition, there are two full-fledged casinos in Indiana’s portion of the Cincinnati metropolitan area, and another less than an hour away.

Last year, KHRC officials criticized JACK officials for not implementing HHR machines at Turfway. At the December meeting, they urged JACK to either bring in the machines or sell the track. This past April, JACK officials announced the initial sale to Hard Rock.

While other Kentucky tracks added HHR machines before Churchill Downs did in Louisville, Guilfoil noted the success of CDI’s Derby City Gaming. The venue, which opened last year, has provided stiff competition for the Horseshoe Southern Indiana casino across the river.

“We don’t see why they can’t compete in northern Kentucky,” he added.

Churchill Downs Keeps Growing

Churchill’s acquisition of Turfway and the upgrades are just the latest moves made by a company that’s expanding rapidly.

In January, the publicly traded company closed on its nearly $180 million deal to buy Presque Isle Downs and Casino in Erie, Pa. In June, it closed on the majority stake acquisition of Rivers Des Plaines casino in Illinois, just outside Chicago.

Officials with Churchill Downs and Keeneland broke ground in April on Oak Grove Racing and Gaming, a $150 million harness track and HHR parlor in western Kentucky. The first harness meet will open on Oct. 18, with the HHR parlor opening next summer.

CDI also has plans to install 1,000 HHR and build a hotel at the namesake Louisville track within the next 18 months.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland had also announced plans two years ago to build a harness track and HHR parlor in southeastern Kentucky. However, that project appears to be shelved for now.

“We’re focusing on what we’ve got right now and (trying to) get those going,” Flanery said. “If other opportunities arise in the future, we’ll always look at them. But we’re very much focused on three pretty big projects in Kentucky that are going to take a lot of our time right now.”

Guilfoil said the KHRC has issued seven of the nine pari-mutuel racing licenses available in the state. No one has approached the commission about a new license, he added, and the commission won’t act until it’s approached.

Improvement Plans Include Bigger Purses

In its plans for Turfway, Churchill has touted it would bring the 60-year-old venue back to its old glory.

Having an HHR parlor will provide the revenue to increase purses, which will attract more entries. That, in turn, should spur more betting interest.

Flanery added that the extra investment could make the Kentucky circuit more attractive to Kentucky Derby candidates in the lead-up to Churchill Downs flagship event. Currently, Turfway’s premier race is the $200,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Stakes, which is run a month before the Grade II Toyota Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland.

With an increased purse for the Jeff Ruby, as well as plans for a new dirt track to go along with the existing synthetic track, owners could consider sending their horses to Turfway instead of Santa Anita in California, Gulfstream Park in Florida, Fair Grounds Race Course in Louisiana, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, or Aqueduct in New York.