Harness Racing Returning to Louisville? Churchill Downs Could Revive at Derby City Gaming

(Plans for Derby City Gaming are coming together / Photo Courtesy of Churchill Downs)

In an exclusive report by Marty Finley for “Louisville Business First,” plans are under way to revive Stanardbred racing in Louisville in 2019. At least for a little while.

According to the report, Churchill Downs has filed an application with the Kentucky Racing Commission that — if and when approved — would allow the track to restore harness racing at the brand new Derby City Gaming facility, which is located off Poplar Level Road in Louisville.

“The Pressbox” has been able to obtain some additional information, including the fact that Churchill Downs would likely run up to two weeks of harness dates over the next couple of years to assist the Kentucky harness horsemen, who have been looking for additional locations since the closure of Thunder Ridge in Prestonsburg, KY. last year.

If the dates are approved, Churchill Downs would look to move the dates to a newly proposed facility in Oak Grove, KY. in 2020 or 2021.

Currently, the only racetracks licensed to conduct harness racing in Kentucky currently are The Red Mile, located in Lexington, KY., and Bluegrass Downs, located in Paducah, Ky.  But those tracks only offer a limited number of live racing dates per year.

But, just a year ago, Churchill Downs and Keeneland filed a joint application to build, own, and operate two new racing facilities in the Commonwealth. One of them would be located near Corbin, KY., in the Southeast section of the state. The other is scheduled to be built in Oak Grove in Southwest, Kentucky.

If either or both of those licenses are finally approved by the Commission — which has yet not addressed either application — then the dates being proposed for Louisville could be transferred to either one, or both, of the new locations in the future.

(The proposed look for a new track at Oak Grove, KY)

The new facility proposed for Oak Grove would be a $125 million investment, which would include the racetrack, and state-of-the-art venue to house innovative historical racing machines. In addition, a 125-room hotel, entertainment venue and equestrian facilities would also be added to the complex.

According to the “Louisville Business First” story, the purse money to be allocated at any races to be conducted at the new Derby City Gaming facility will come from an agreement with Keeneland, through a joint venture called WKY Development. The joint venture was created by both Keeneland and Churchill Downs when it joined forces to make the join application a year ago.

“The loss of Standardbred racing at Thunder Ridge has created a gaping hole in the Kentucky racing circuit. At a time when other states are increasing purses, the Kentucky racing industry needs to take immediate action to re-issue the Thunder Ridge license which will lead to increases in both Standardbred and Thoroughbred purses. The time to act is now to get Kentucky’s signature industry back as the dominant force of racing in this country,” said Foster Northup, a member of the Kentucky Racing Commission, in a press release issued by the joint venture.

Others are openly supporting the new race dates, and the opportunities to expand racing in the Commonwealth, as well.

“As competing states like New York, Arkansas, Ohio and Indiana continue to fuel their purse accounts with revenue from expanded gaming, the Kentucky racing circuit risks falling behind and desperately needs an infusion of purse dollars. Kentucky’s signature racing and breeding industries cannot afford to delay any effort to put Kentucky racetracks on a level playing field to attract full fields of quality horses,” said Dr. David Richardson, Chairman, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. He was also quoted in the release.

Oddly enough, if the Commission does approve the dates and racing is run at the new location, harness racing will be returning to its’ roots. The new facility is located on the same piece of ground that was formerly known as Louisville Downs — a longtime Standardbred operation that conducted live Standardbred racing on the same grounds from 1966 to 1991.

It was then that Churchill Downs purchased the property from William King, one of the most innovative racetrack operators in the game at the time. At the time of operation, it was a half-mile oval. After the purchase, though, Churchill Downs converted the facility into a simulcast wagering outlet, and the racetrack into a training facility, which is still utilized today.

Trainers such as Mike Maker, one of the more successful Thoroughbred trainers headquartered in Kentucky year round, base their operations at the training track facility.

Both Kevin Flanery, the President of Churchill Downs, and Vince Gabbert, the Vice President & CEO of Keeneland, issued statements on Tuesday, as well.

Flanery stated:

“Reissuing the Thunder Ridge racetrack license to Churchill Downs and Keeneland for immediate use is the right and responsible thing to do for Kentucky’s horse racing industry. The closure of Thunder Ridge racetrack was a significant hit to horse racing in the Commonwealth, but Churchill Downs and Keeneland are stepping up to address it and ensure the continuation of a strong racing circuit.”

Gabbert was quoted as saying:

“Bringing standardbred racing to Louisville in 2019 and then to Christian County in 2020 and beyond is critical to maintain Kentucky’s preeminent status as the horse racing capital of the world. We are optimistic the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will approve our application to ensure the standardbred horse racing circuit continues to thrive in the Commonwealth.”

(A proposed look for a new track in Corbin, KY / Courtesy of Churchill Downs)

The proposed racetrack project in Corbin is also still in the plans, according to the release.



The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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