Opinion / Cleaning Out the OIe’ Muck Pit: Did KY Downs’ Official Give Misleading Statements to KY Racing Commission? You Be “The Judge”

(The plans to build, own and operate a new Standardbred racetrack in Oak Grove are now held up in court)

Every so often, we will be addressing a few things: comments, decisions, people, whatever that – for one reason or another – should be tossed into the literary “muck pit.”

It is in the spirit of cleanliness, recycling, and protecting the environment that we offer this service of “addressing the muck” – free of charge. After all, someone has to do it, right?

And, it didn’t take long for us to find a few pounds of, well, manure.

Here is a look at our 13th Edition”:

What Did He Say? Seriously? He Said That? 

Way back in 1906, long before there was a Kentucky Downs Thoroughbred racetrack, the legendary Mark Twain made popular a statement that has been used often in the many years since.

In “Chapters from My Autobiography,” printed in the North American Review, Twain twirled this fabulous piece of prose:

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”

That phrase may, in fact, be an adaptation of what Robert Griffen posted in 1892. That version went like this:

“An old jest runs to the effect that there are three degrees of comparison among liars. There are liars, there are outrageous liars, and there are scientific experts.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

Or, in this case, written.

And, over the past few months, officials from Kentucky Downs may have hit the “Twain Trifecta,” if you would prefer to put that phrase in racetrack parlance.

Read on, and then you can decide for yourself.

You can decipher; separate wheat from shaft; peel the layers of the onion; and form your own judgment.

You can be “The Judge.”

Truthfully — and I admit that’s a difficult word to use when describing what has transpired over the past few months in the quest to issue a new racetrack license for Oak Grove, Ky. — the situation all began to heat up in October of 2018.

It was then that Kentucky Downs, along with Caesar’s Entertainment, joined in the fray to seek a license to build, own and operate a Standardbred racetrack in rural Southwest Kentucky in the sleepy little town of Oak Grove.

Previously, going all the way back to 2017, a new business entity comprised of both racing lynchpins/icons of the Keeneland Association and Churchill Downs, had filed the same paperwork and announced the same intent.

So, when the Kentucky Racing Commission announced that it would be setting up hearings to entertain all three of the new applications, the gnashing of teeth and the scramble was on.

Full engagement.

Unfortunately, full engagement must not have meant full disclosure to some.

On Oct. 8, “The Pressbox” released its’ first breaking story about Kentucky Downs. According to multiple reliable sources, the European-styled grass course track located in Franklin, KY. was entertaining offers for a possible sale at the same time that it was making application for the new license in Oak Grove.

Although no official from Kentucky Downs would comment on the story, although we asked multiple times, the track also made no effort to publicly deny the story, either.

Fast forward to Tuesday, Oct. 30. At 1:30 p.m., the Kentucky Racing Commission convened to hear testimony from all three racetracks about their respective proposals to build, own and operate a new Standardbred racetrack and operate a Historical Racing Machine venue in Oak Grove.

The meeting lasted an agonizing 5 hours. Each track took their turn to describe their respective proposal in detail. The scope. The size. The financial commitment. The plans for live racing. The plans for Historical Racing Machines. The plans to build and operate hotels, commercial development and other amenities.

In the midst, the Commissioners also took turns asking pertinent and meaningful questions of each. The questions were well thought out. The questions were important.

And, thus, the answers to those questions were important, too. Vitally important. Critically important.

Or, so one would think.

One of the questions that was posed to all three of the applicants – whose officials were only present during the length and depth of the meeting for their individual presentation – was the same.

At the conclusion of each presentation, Kentucky Racing Commissioner Doug Hendrickson posed the query.

Read carefully.

This comes from the official transcript of the meeting, composed by Georgene R. Scrivner, the certified court reporter.

To Churchill Downs:

“Another kind of follow-up question. Kind of back on the discussion, any major changes in principle or principle ownership in your organization; imminent, anticipated, in the next 24 months or any preliminary discussions towards that? You have spin-offs, the tracks going to spin off at all, I think.”

Keeneland’s answer, by Vice President Vince Gabbert:

“I hope for no changes.”

Churchill Downs’ answer, by President Kevin Flanery:

“Honestly, we’re a public trading company. So folks can buy our stock. But, no, there’s nothing that I know of, anything like that.”

To Caesar’s Entertainment:

“Acknowledging you’re a publicly traded company, is there any major change in principal or principals, in mergers, ownership of your organization that is either imminent or anticipated over the next 24 months?

Caesar’s answer, by Dan Real:

“I would say that’s a certainty. You know, we just finished the Centaur deal. That was a pretty big deal, $1.7 billion.

“We are opening a facility in Dubai where we are the manager of the hotel. We are opening up – we have 2 of those. We’re opening up a facility in Cabo San Lucas. We are active with several other possible mergers and deals right now. But other than the ones that have already been done, that’s not – Matt and I get called when deals are ready to be made.

“But our company has made it clear that they want to continue to be active. What that means, where that will be, I don’t know. This is approved. So that I know. I wish I knew more about the future held there, but they are moving goalposts, as you might imagine.”

At the end of the endurance meeting, Hendrickson was ready with his final question for Kentucky Downs:

“Is there any major change in principal ownership in your organization, either imminent or anticipated, in the next 24 months? And as a follow-up, are there any preliminary discussions about change in ownership?

Key words:

“…any major change in principal ownership…”

“…either imminent or anticipated…”

“…in the next 24 months?”

“…any preliminary discussions about change in ownership?”

Now, this is where things get really interesting.

Kentucky Downs’ answer, by Corey Johnsen – on page 183, 184 of the transcript:

“So, no. But it’s very difficult to speculate. So let me just share this with you.

“I’m a co-managing partner. And the way our partnership is set up, I have authority over anything that happens. I’m not going anywhere. And I believe a majority of our partners are not going anywhere.

“So I’m not sure if that answers your question. But I think without being able to speculate on what happens in the future, my answer to you is no.”

Wow.

“…my answer to you is no.”

Really?

So, Johnsen publicly denied the story that appeared in “The Pressbox?”

Did Johnsen simply ignore that “speculation” was already underway. “Speculation” was already in the public domain. Speculation was cast on Oct. 8 when “The Pressbox” released our first story on the subject.

And, with that knowledge, Corey Johnsen still said: “No.”

On the record. Before each member of the Kentucky Racing Commission. Before the world.

“…my answer to you is no.”

Fast forward to Sunday, Nov. 11. Again, “The Pressbox” broke the story, announcing that Kentucky Downs was in the final stages of being sold to a team led by prominent Thoroughbred owner Ron Winchell, who also owns and operates a string of slots parlors in Las Vegas.

Two days later, on Tuesday, Nov. 13, it became official. Kentucky Downs issued a press release confirming what “The Pressbox” had first revealed. The track, in fact, had been sold for a deal that reportedly exceeded $175,000,000.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Did Johnsen know of any possible deals when he testified before the Commission on Oct. 30? After all, there was rampant speculation of such? Even so much smoke that “The Pressbox” broke a story.

How did he not?

Did Johnsen know of any possible discussion and negotiations with Winchell and his partner, Marc Falcone? After all, this was a $175,000,000 deal, right? How could that kind of a deal possibly come together – from zero to finish — from Oct. 30 to fruition on Nov. 11 without any previous discussion? In the matter of 12 days, that deal went from no discussion to full completion? Did Johnsen not know about that when he testified?

How did he not?

Did Johnsen mislead the Commission? Did he fully answer Commissioner Hendrickson’s question accurately, and honestly?

Did he?

Or was it a perfect example of Mark Twain’s famous reiteration of Disraeli’s exclamation:

“There are lies, damn lies, and statistics?”

And, if so, which one was it?

A lie?

A damn lie?

Or simply a statistic?

You be “The Judge.”

Three days later, on Friday, Nov. 16, the Kentucky Racing Commission convened at the Kentucky Horse Park and awarded the new racetrack license to the new consortium of Keeneland and Churchill Downs in an overwhelming majority vote. For the first time in 25 years, the regulatory body had issued a new racetrack license in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Immediately, the two losers do what losers do these days.

They cried.

They claimed foul.

And, then, in the first week of January 2019, Kentucky Downs filed a lawsuit challenging the ruling and decision of the Kentucky Racing Commission to Franklin Circuit Court.

There are numerous allegations in the lawsuit. So many that it makes for another interesting read and another story for “The Muck Pit,” to be honest. Stay tuned for that one.

But, for now, it begs a serious question:

How does someone who sits before the Kentucky Racing Commission and make statements that appear to be less than fully forthright, at the least — as the ones given by an official from Kentucky Downs — and then get away with alleging misconduct, malfeasance, and misjudgment of others?

Seriously? Does this argument fall under the childhood allegation of: “It takes one to know one?” Is that the basis of the lawsuit?

In my official duties in the past, I have testified before the Kentucky Racing Commission on many occasions. In my official duties for a variety of clients, I have testified before Committee Chairmen and members of the Kentucky General Assembly.

Despite the fact that there is no requirement to be “sworn in” and “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” under oath, I can’t imagine doing anything less. Otherwise, the ability to ever testify again would be greatly compromised, if not totally eliminated.

You see, credibility is something earned, not given. Honesty is something demanded and expected, not traded for convenience; not shrouded in mystery; not couched in hyperbole.

A person’s word is truly a bond. Especially when you are sitting before an official body of jurisprudence, which is charged with making decisions based on your promises, your words, your assertions.

If Kentucky Downs’ testimony before the Kentucky Racing Commission is less than credible; less than honest; less than a bond, then the Franklin Circuit Court should do the world a favor.

Dismiss this meritless case immediately.

And, while it is at it, the Court should issue a serious reprimand.

I can’t imagine a Judge — or a mother, for that matter — approving of anything less.

I was absolutely dancing into the Winner’s Circle. It was so exciting and Joel has been like one of my kids ever since he came from Bay Meadows. We tease each other a lot. We greet each other by grunting and everybody looks at us like, ‘what’s that all about’ but we’ve been doing it for years. So it’s wonderful to win with him. The owners are great people that really deserve something like this.

“This horse seems like he’s more adept at seven furlongs to a mile so I’m not sure he wants a mile and a quarter …

“I could tell my horse had won, but I was so excited in the stretch I thought I was gonna pass out.

“We are very happy with the way our horse had trained for this race, but it’s always scary when you get a look at those Baffert ‘Maseratis’, it pretty much unfolded the way we had hoped.

“The people that own this horse, they’ve got this colt a seven furlong-miler type maybe time will tell differently, but the other colt they are focusing on him going the two turns.”

JEFF BONDE, SPARKY VILLE, WINNER
  • 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 ...

    Full Bio >

More From Gene McLean