KY Racing Commission Awards Oak Grove License to Keeneland-Churchill Downs Venture

(The proposal to build a new Standardbred racetrack in Oak Grove submitted by a new consortium consisting of both Keeneland and Churchill Downs won final approval from the Kentucky Racing Commission on Friday. The track plans to be open to race live in the Fall of 2019. Artist rendering courtesy of Keeneland/Churchill Downs)

After a long, arduous, protracted, and detailed process — which started well over a year ago when the first application was filed — the Kentucky Racing Commission voted on Friday afternoon to award a new racing license to a new venture created by the historic, and iconic racetracks Keeneland and Churchill Downs to build, own, and operate a new Standardbred racetrack in Oak Grove, KY. It marks the first time in 25 years that the regulatory body has issued a new racetrack license in the Commonwealth.

“We’re thankful to the KHRC for supporting our application as we know it represents the very best opportunity for both Oak Grove and Kentucky’s signature horse racing industry,” said Kevin Flanery, the President of Churchill Downs. “Churchill Downs and Keeneland are the biggest names in horse racing and have a proven track record of success. Our projects consistently overdeliver, creating jobs, fostering innovation, driving economic development and supporting Kentucky’s racing circuit. We look forward to a great future in Oak Grove.”
Vince Gabbert, Vice President of Keeneland, made the following comment:
“We are appreciative of the support of the Commission of our application, and look forward to what this means for Standardbred and Thoroughbred purses across the Commonwealth.”

The process of deliberating a possible new track in Oak Grove — a city in Southwest Kentucky and located in southern Christian County near the Ft. Campbell military installation and neighboring Clarksville, TN. — began well over a year ago. It was then that Keeneland and Churchill Downs first announced its’ new collaboration and joint venture, and filed the proper paperwork with the Kentucky Racing Commission to construct a new Standardbred racetrack in the rural part of Southwest Kentucky.

But that license application laid dormant on the desk of Chairman of the Kentucky Racing Commission until this Fall, when Keeneland and Churchill Downs pushed the envelope and the project closer to fruition by request live race dates to be issued for the new venture. Due to the fact that the Kentucky Racing Commission is obligated by statute to issue live race dates on or before Nov. 1 of each year, the Commission then had to decide to either issue a new license or revoke the request for live dates.

With that question lying in the balance, Kentucky Racing Commission Chairman Franklin S. Kling announced that he would soon begin “accepting new racetrack applications” and announced a process that would be followed to review, detail and discuss any and all new proposals for possible racetracks.

Well, it was off to the races for filing of racetrack licenses.

After that request, two other tracks rushed to the alter to file applications to also build, own, and operate Standardbred racetracks in the same jurisdiction. The second application came on the final day for acceptance — Monday, Oct. 1 — by Caesar’s Racing & Entertainment, which nows owns and operates a Standardbred meet at the downtrodden Bluegrass Downs in Paducah, KY. The third application was submitted just a few hours later by Kentucky Downs, a Thoroughbred racetrack near Franklin, KY, and located just a few miles south of Bowling Green.

During the month of October, the Commission met several times to review the applications, and discuss the contents of each proposal. Finally, on Oct. 30, the Commission called a meeting at the Kentucky Horse Park to confirmed live race dates for 2019, and discuss each of the applications in intricate detail. In a meeting that lasted over 5 hours, the full Kentucky Racing Commission heard testimony from each of the three applicants, and were able to ask questions of each.

But instead of voting on which application could or should be adopted, the Commission finally adjourned and made a public declaration that they would accepted additional materials and data from each of applicants to formalize answers to questions posed at the Oct. 30 meeting, and then meet again before Thanksgiving to formally make a decision on the matter.

On Friday, Nov. 16, that meeting came to pass. And, after more discussion, questions, and answers, there was a motion made to approve the Keeneland-Churchill Downs proposal, and issue that new entity a license to build, own, operate a new Standardbred racetrack in Oak Grove.

Although there were three dissenting votes to the contrary — cast by the Chairman, and Commissioners Larry Bisig and Pat Day — the measure was overwhelmingly approved by the vast majority of the Commissioners. And, for the firsts time in 25 years, the Commission agreed to issue a new racetrack license.

Representatives from the two applicants that did not win the bid, or the Commission approval expressed disappointment after the meeting on Friday.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” said Dan Real, an Executive with the Caesar’s Racing & Entertainment team, in an interview with Alicia Wincze Hughes of “The Blood-Horse,” and reported in that magazine’s on-line version at www.bloodhorse.com. “They don’t have a signed horsemen’s agreement, they don’t have the ability to do simulcasting, they don’t have any history, relationship, marketing or efforts in the region … and, obviously, the other two operators do. I’ve never been to a place where they had (a) motion for approval before a vote by a commission already in the hands of the commission’s attorney—already written out before that happens. … It leads me to believe this was always set up to be what it was since day one.”

Kentucky Downs — which announced that it was selling the track near Franklin, KY. since the Oct. 30 meeting to a team of Thoroughbred owner Ron Winchell and partner Marc Falcone — didn’t accept the rejection well either.

“We obviously came to the process late. We emphatically, really wanted more time because this is such an important decision,” said Winchell, who now lives in Las Vegas and owns a string of slot parlors known as Jackpot Joanie’s, to Wincze Hughes. “The process, I think, in comparison to other processes, is something that left other desires, let’s call it. The process, I think, was not the best.”

“We are disappointed the commission didn’t even take up an interest in giving us more time, frankly,” Falcone added.

Here is the full text of a press release issued by the new Keeneland-Churchill Downs venture after the vote today:

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She broke like a rocket. I kept her just off the leader’s flank on the outside and, even though we were going fast, she was in control. When I asked her to go in the stretch she dug in and held off Miss Kentucky. I think this was a great race for her. She’s really starting to develop nicely.”

Florent Geroux, Jockey of ASTROLLINTHEPARK
  • 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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