Churchill Downs Wants ‘Derby City Lite’ Historical Horse Racing Parlor for Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky

Posted on: February 18, 2020, 11:43h. 

Last updated on: February 19, 2020, 10:55h.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – An official from Churchill Downs Inc.’s told members of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) on Tuesday that the company plans to build a historical horse racing (HHR) parlor in northern Kentucky.

A satellite historical horse racing parlor nearby would help Turfway Park generate purse money it needs to offer large purses and draw quality horses for races, a Churchill Downs Inc. official told the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Tuesday. (Image: Turfway Park)

The parlor is necessary because planned renovations and construction work at Turfway Park will leave the track, which the Louisville-based company purchased last fall, without a grandstand or clubhouse to hold the HHR machines Churchill Downs needs to fund purses for the 2020-2021 meet.

“Turfway Park would like to have ‘Derby City Lite,’” Mike Ziegler, executive director of racing for Churchill Downs, told the commissioners during their meeting at the Kentucky Horse Park. That’s a reference to Derby City Gaming, the Louisville HHR parlor that’s about 10 minutes away from the company’s namesake track.

In order to do this, the state will need to amend regulations for thoroughbred and harness racing. Churchill Downs is asking the commission to allow each licensed track an “extension facility” that would be within 60 miles of the parent track – but not adjacent – and not within 60 miles of another track or 40 miles from a simulcasting facility, unless the track or simulcasting center give written approval.

The state regulatory review process means it could take several months in order for the change to be formally approved. Ziegler told the board Churchill Downs plans to move forward in the near future and will assume the risk if the regulatory change isn’t approved.

Ziegler told after his remarks that Churchill Downs has yet to pick a site for the facility.

Market Can Support Both Facilities

While the need is temporary, Ziegler said the extension facility for Turfway Park would likely be permanent because of the company needing to recoup its investment in the satellite HHR parlor. In reviewing possible locations, he said the company has not found one similar in size to Derby City Gaming, which offers 1,000 machines across 85,000 square feet.

That sparked some concern from KHRC Chairman Frank Kling, who worried that an extension HHR venue would keep people away from the proposed facility Churchill Downs plans to build at Turfway. Other commission members and Ziegler assured Kling that wouldn’t happen, noting that Derby City Gaming has not cannibalized business at Churchill. Further, it would help keep money from going to casinos in neighboring Ohio and Indiana.

Ziegler added that market research shows the northern Kentucky region would be able to support both the extension facility and the HHR parlor at the rebuilt Turfway Park clubhouse, which is scheduled to open next year.

We’re confident in the fact that when we build a $150 million racetrack, people that want to go watch racing are going to go to the racetrack,” Ziegler said. “People that don’t are going to want to go to what’s most convenient to them.”

KHRC approved Turfway to operate up to 1,500 HHR machines back in December 2015. However, the track’s previous owner, JACK Entertainment, never followed through with a plan to install the machines. JACK also owned a casino in neighboring Cincinnati at the time.

JACK initially sought to sell Turfway last year to Hard Rock International in tandem with its Cincinnati casino. That changed when Churchill Downs announced in September a plan to build a new track in the region. A month later, Churchill Downs agreed to buy Turfway for $46 million.

Turfway to Install Synthetic Track Surface

The company plans other fixes as well, namely to the track surface itself. After the current meet ends, Churchill Downs will spend $5.6 million to install a Tapeta synthetic track around the 1-mile course.

The track is expected to be ready when racing resumes in December and will replace the existing synthetic racing surface.

Synthetic surfaces have shown to be durable, all-weather tracks, an important consideration for Turfway since its annual meet runs through the winter. Presque Isle Downs, a Churchill Downs-owned track in Pennsylvania, also features a Tapeta track.

“The agreement with Tapeta is the first of many exciting initiatives to come for Turfway,” Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Racetrack and Turfway Park, said in a release. “By partnering with Tapeta to provide the safest racing conditions for Turfway’s winter meets, we will be able to deliver one of the key elements supporting our goal of bringing a first-class racing product to northern Kentucky.”

In addition, Zielger told the commission that Churchill plans to build a dirt inner track. That work will likely take place next year.