Keeneland Revives Plans for Southeast Kentucky Harness Racing Track, This Time with Kentucky Downs Owners

Posted on: September 22, 2020, 11:12h. 

Last updated on: September 23, 2020, 10:38h.

The owners of two Kentucky race tracks have announced plans to come together and bring harness racing and historical horse racing (HHR) machines to the southeastern corner of the state.

Kentucky harness racing
Keeneland and the majority owners of Kentucky Downs announced this week they will seek a parimutuel license to allow harness racing in Corbin, Ky. (Image: Wikimedia)

On Monday, Keeneland and the majority owners of Kentucky Downs issued a joint release. In it, the entities said they’ve filed an application with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) for a pari-mutuel racing license for a track in Corbin, located about 80 miles south of Lexington. In addition to the harness track, they plan to build an extension facility in Williamsburg, which is located about 15 miles south of Corbin.

The release did not indicate how much the sides plan to invest in the endeavor. However, Keeneland Vice President and COO Vince Gabbert told on Tuesday that properties for both venues are under contract. Both facilities would house about 400 HHR machines each, he said.

HHR machines look like traditional slot machines, but use a library of previously run races to determine the outcome of each wager.

State regulations allow each track to operate an extension facility that’s located within a 60-mile radius of the track. Earlier this year, the KHRC approved such a facility for Churchill Downs Inc. in Northern Kentucky. Churchill Downs plans to use the facility in Newport, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, to operate HHR machines and boost the purses for nearby Turfway Park, while the Louisville company completely rebuilds the track’s grandstand.

It’s uncertain when the KHRC may review the application. But Gabbert said the plan is to open both facilities around the same time.

Keeneland Comes Back to Southeast Kentucky Plans

While horse racing is a major economic engine for the state of Kentucky, it has not had much of a presence in the rural southeastern part of the state.

Nearly three years ago to the date of Monday’s announcement, Keeneland and Churchill Downs announced plans to build harness tracks in Corbin and Oak Grove, which is in the western part of the state. However, plans for the Corbin track fizzled, and the focus went toward Oak Grove.

Harness racing started at Oak Grove last year, and earlier this month, the track celebrated the grand opening of its HHR parlor.

Now Keeneland is ready to move on again with the Corbin project.

“This project will strengthen Kentucky’s vital horse industry and positively impact the Commonwealth and the local communities by stimulating significant economic growth, generating hundreds of new jobs and enhancing tourism and hospitality,” Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason said.

The project also has the support of the mayors of both communities.

“The new racing facility will be a welcome addition to our city’s already long list of sites and attractions for local residents and visitors,” Corbin Mayor Suzie Razmus said.

Gaming Expanding in Region

The push to develop a track and HHR parlors in southeastern Kentucky comes as neighboring Virginia is on the verge of a gaming expansion.

Five cities will hold referendums to allow casino gaming in the Virginia, and that includes Bristol, which is about 100 miles east of Corbin and Williamsburg.

More importantly, Williamsburg is about 55 miles north of Knoxville, Tenn., the region’s major metropolitan area. Bristol, where a Hard Rock casino has been proposed, is about twice as far away.

Tennessee, too, is about to embark on a gaming expansion as it plans to welcome legal sports betting by November.