(The VIP Chalet at Kentucky Downs. Horsemen’s hospitality is a priority at the track. Grace Clark photo)
The key indicators to measure the success of a race meet were either up or maintained a lofty level at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs came to a close Wednesday.
Purses paid out to horse owners were a record for the 12th straight year. Money wagered was another record, increasing 4.3 percent. Field sizes remained among the highest in the country with an average of 10.42 starters per race.
There’s another important metric at Kentucky Downs: Prioritizing hospitality for horse owners and ensuring horsemen have a good time.
“Kentucky Downs’ ownership led by Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone continually pushes us to present racing in a different way, to look for ways to innovate and improve,” said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs’ Vice President for Racing. “We put a premium on creating a memorable experience for our guests, horsemen and our sponsors. Horse owners put on the show. We want to show our recognition and appreciation for that with our hospitality.”
Of course, people having a good time can only be measured anecdotally. Like this:
“It’s just fabulous,” said Ted Nixon, whose Storyteller Racing won its first race at Kentucky Downs. “You all have really upped the game in hospitality. I don’t know how you make it more friendly.”
“It’s a unique venue,” said Mary Nixon, Ted’s wife, co-owner of Storyteller and chairwoman of the University of Louisville’s Board of Trustees. “The purses are outrageous. It brings the best jockeys, trainers and horses from all over. It’s a fun atmosphere. And yeah, when you win a race, it makes it just that much sweeter.”
On top of it, she added, “We got a nice, beautiful bottle of bourbon out of it.”
All-sources wagering on the meet totaled $83,640,261, up from $80,175,928 last year. A total of $25,065,000 was offered in purses for 76 races, including $10,523,750 in purse supplements from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund. Of the 11 stakes offering $1 million or more in purses, 10 were won by Kentucky-breds.
Total purses paid out this meet is still being verified but is certain to top last year’s $17,863,177 for 73 races. Seventy-two different ownership entities won races.
Kentucky Downs no longer just a domestic track but starting to receive international attention. Qatar Racing and the Racehorse Club’s Irish-bred The Lir Jet came over from England to take the 2021 Franklin-Simpson (G2). Last year the Joseph O’Brien-trained Kentucky-bred Reckoning Force came from Ireland, via Saratoga, and won Kentucky Downs’ mile 2-year-old stakes for Qatar Racing, Marc Detampel and Fergus Galvin.
Then this year, Mrs. Fitriani Hay’s British-based but Kentucky-bred Ancient Rome, ridden by former Irish and British riding champion Jamie Spencer for trainer Charlie Hills, crossed the Atlantic to win the $2 million Mint Millions (G3), America’s most lucrative turf race outside the Breeders’ Cup.
“We are committed to a world-class race meet,” Nicholson said. “We hope we’re seeing the start of a trend of overseas horses coming to run at Kentucky Downs.”
Trainer Jonathan Thomas mentioned the “buzz” about Kentucky Downs even before he won a pair of $1 million races. He said if a trainer doesn’t have horses entered to race at Kentucky Downs then owners want to know why not.
“It’s like a fresh look at something,” he said. “We’re kind of used to seeing the same old thing, just in different venues. This is a different place. Outside of bills and horses not running well, the biggest complaint I hear from owners is ‘where has the fun gone?’ I think guys have fun here.”
Damon Thayer, Kentucky’s Senate Majority Floor Leader, has seen up close the transformation of Kentucky Downs. He worked for Turfway Park in 1998 when he was charged with rebranding the track then known as Dueling Grounds after it was sold out of bankruptcy to Turfway and Churchill Downs. (The track was sold three more times, including to the current ownership group headed by Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone in 2019.)
“Yes, the financial success is there with the handle being up,” said Thayer, who attended five of the meet’s seven days. “But it also has a cool vibe factor going for it. I also think the prestige of the meet is starting to get baked in across North America. It used to be kind of a quirky, novelty track, and there were some people who wouldn’t run here. Now everybody is coming. All the jockeys are here, all the trainers, the big outfits. It exemplifies what’s going right with Kentucky racing.”
Kentucky Downs was love at first sight for James Atkins of Virginia, co-owner of Hidden Class, who won a $250,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sales allowance race on opening day and returned to finish a close fourth in Wednesday’s $500,000 Pepsi Untapable.
“I loved it there… I’m definitely coming back,” Atkins said. “A bunch of my buddies want to come, too.”