OPINION: Cleaning Out the Ole’ Muck Pit With “Horseshoes Up”

(Image of the proposed grandstand at the new racetrack in Oak Grove / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland-Churchill Downs)

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, and a renewal of our “Horseshoes Up:”

4 Horsehoes Up:

While it has been a couple of weeks now since the Kentucky Racing Commission finally acted on the applications to build, own, and operate a new Standardbred racetrack in Oak Grove, KY., and granted the permit to a joint venture of Keeneland and Churchill Downs, it is still both newsworthy and credit worthy.

Worthy of acknowledgment.

Worthy of applause.

Worthy of thanks. Even if it is post-Thanksgiving.

The process for granting a new racetrack license in Oak Grove started well over a year ago, when Keeneland and Churchill Downs joined forces and decided to pursue two new racetrack licenses.

One was initially proposed for Southeast Kentucky, in or around the Corbin/London area. That one has since been put on “hold” to see if the market demand is truly there, and more analysis is performed on the potential size and scope.

The second market, though, was Oak Grove. And, by the overwhelming reaction and response of the community, surrounding areas, and interested parties — both inside and outside the industry — there is little to no doubt about this city’s potential to become a vast new territory worth taming.

There is no doubt that there is significant market demand.

There is no doubt that the area of the Commonwealth is underserved and full of potential.

And, there is no doubt that the development of a new racetrack in that area — that can offer both live racing and Historical Racing Machines — has the potential to create economic growth, new jobs, and millions of dollars.

Millions of new dollars for both the local economy — through tourism and development — but also millions of dollars for purse money for both Standardbred and Thoroughbred owners and breeders. Millions of dollars needed for a Commonwealth and an industry desperately in need of cash infusions and economic development.

Let it be known that this Kentucky Racing Commission did not come to this decision easily. Or without some angst. Or without a lot of wringing of hands and hassle of debate.

For the longest time, the Keeneland-Churchill Downs application sat idly on the desk of Chairman Franklin S. Kling. For the longest time, one wondered if the application would ever be dusted off and considered.

But in late September, Keeneland and Churchill Downs took the next step, and announced that the new venture would apply for live racing dates in 2019 and 2020 for the proposed track in Oak Grove.

According to Kentucky State Statutes, the Commission shall consider all live dates requests and issue them by Nov. 1 of the proceeding year. At a true crossroads, the Commission was faced with a dilemma:

Do they issue live dates to Oak Grove? If so, don’t they have to act upon the license request?

Do not not issue live dates, and continue to ignore the license request?

Fortunately, and thankfully, the Chairman of the Commission decided on the former and not the latter. Fortunately, and thankfully, the Chairman took on the job and duties that he and all others on the Commission agreed faithfully to uphold. And, the Chairman of the Commission announced that the regulatory body would begin receiving and acting upon any new license applications with due diligence par excellence.

As you know by now, two other racetracks — licensed to conduct live racing in the Commonwealth — submitted applications for a license to conduct live racing and Historical Racing Machines in Oak Grove before the Oct. 1 deadline for the consideration of live racing dates.

One of those was by Caesar’s Racing and Entertainment, which currently holds a license for Bluegrass Downs — a Standardbred racing venue in Paducah.

The other was by Kentucky Downs, which currently hosts a five-day, all-turf Thoroughbred meet near Franklin, KY.

And, the debate race was on.

After 30 days of meetings; gathering of information; and deliberations, the Commission members convened and held one of the longest public hearings in the history of public hearings for consideration of which application to accept.

At the end of nearly 5 hours of mind tennis, though, the Commission finally decided to issue live dates to all three applicants — with the contingency that it would issue the license holder at a later date. And, only the license holder would be able to utilize those live dates.

In mid-November, the Commission did convene yet again. And, it heard “closing arguments” from each applicant. Again. No time in modern history

But this time, the Commission did the right thing.

It took a vote.

And, the Commissioners did the right thing, too, when they finally took the vote.

It voted overwhelmingly to give the new license to the original applicant. The entity that promised and now plans to spend upwards of $150,000,000 to put a new racing facility in in the Commonwealth, and into full operation. So much so, that it plans to race live in 2019. In Oak Grove.

It vote overwhelmingly to give the new license to two of the world’s greatest Thoroughbred racing institutions, and most notable industry partners — whose list of annual accomplishments outstrip nearly any and all other racing institution in the entire world. Obviously, this dynamic duo have a long history of producing live racing. Of producing quality racing. Of producing quality facilities. Of producing, period.

It voted overwhelmingly to expand the industry; create economic development; foster new job growth; build both Thoroughbred and Standardbred purses. All things that both the industry and the Commonwealth need.

It voted overwhelmingly.

While the process may have taken longer than any of us would have preferred, the process was intense. The process was detailed. And, while the process may have been exhausting, the process was professional, fair and the process rendered a decision.

Sometimes it is a thankless job to sit and serve on a regulatory body. Especially one that is so vitally important as the Kentucky Racing Commission.

But sometimes it is worth taking a moment; worth pausing a second; worth thanking the people that do the thankless job.

And, this is such a time. Thank you Kentucky Racing Commission. For doing what is the right thing.

(Kentucky Downs / Photo Courtesy of Kentucky Downs)

3 Horseshoes Up:

Immediately after the Kentucky Racing Commission announced its’ decision to grant the Oak Grove license to the joint venture of Keeneland and Churchill Downs, it was understandable that the connections representing the “other” applications were disappointed, and, perhaps, aggrieved by the ultimate ruling.

It is understandable that the spokespersons for each of the those institutions would struggle to find the right words to explain both their frustrations and thoughts.

It is understandable that those that have spent so much time and trouble to present a professional presentation would feel wronged and short-changed — even if they were not; and were not.

But it didn’t take long for Ron Winchell, the primary new owner of Kentucky Downs, along with Marc Falcone, to reflect and do what he normally does in all things business.

Just read what Ron Winchell was quoted as saying:

“Now we know we have competition in the market. We’re going to gear up. We’re doing what we do best. We’re very competitive when it comes to gaming, and now we’ve got to do that apparently in the Kentucky Downs arena. It’s a thought process of how we deal with the competition, and we’re going to do that the way we always do.”

He responded with pure professionalism.

He responded with dedication and commitment to his new business venture.

He responded with a promise to compete.

I didn’t expect less from the man, who grew up learning the business world and the Thoroughbred industry from his tremendously successful father — Verne Winchell, who started out in the donut business and built an economical empire.

After all, Verne Winchell bred, owned and raced the great Tapit — who has gone on to become one of the world’s most successful, renown sires in the game today, and in the history of the sport. One of the most competitive sports in the history of sports.

After all, Ron Winchell now owns about 18 slot parlors in Las Vegas known as Jackpot Joanie’s — named after his mother. And, if you know anything about Las Vegas, it is a place known for competition.

After all, Ron Winchell raced the grand Gun Runner. And, after leading late and then losing the one race that the Winchell men always wanted to win — the Kentucky Derby — the grand Gun Runner went on to become one of the world’s greatest racehorses ever — capturing the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2017 and becoming the first winner of the Pegasus World Cup in 2018.

In short, Ron Winchell knows the disappointment of losing.

In the long run, though, Ron Winchell knows how to win, too, with both style and grace along with grit determination and gutty grind.

And, I think both he and Kentucky Downs will be and do just fine. I wouldn’t bet against them, mind you. And, for my money, the track is now in the absolute best, most firm and capable hands it could be.

I expect the new owners to build on its’ market and success. Not shrink.

The man is not known for shrinking. He is known for winning.

(Jockey Tyler Gaffalione / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)

2 Horseshoes Up:

A lot of people may have not taken notice when young Tyler Gaffalione moved his tack up from the Miami shoreline to Lexington for the Keeneland October race meet. And, there were plenty of reasons not to make a big deal about the latest arrival to the Bluegrass.

They are, in no particular order:

Jose Ortiz.

Julie Leparoux.

Mike Smith.

Corey Lanerie.

Irad Ortiz, Jr.

Chris Landeros.

Joel Rosario.

Florent Geroux.

Joe Bravo.

Ricardo Santana, Jr.

Well, you get the idea.

The jockey’s room was well stocked, as it was, with some of the finest riders in the free world. One more body was not going to be anybody, right?


It is about time to take note.

In October, Gaffalione won his first rider’s title in Kentucky, out-distancing all of the name brands to win the leading jockey championship at his first Keeneland meet.

In November, Gaffalione won his second rider’s title in Kentucky, and in as many months, nipping several other Kentucky stalwarts along the way to win the leading jockey championship at Churchill Downs’ November meet.

Not a bad way to make your introduction, young man.

Truth be known, Tyler Gaffalion has the game to make it anywhere. He has had that for quite some time. But now that he has done it here, well, people are getting use to the name quickly, too.

(Ben Huffman / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)

1 Horseshoe Up:

Kudos must go out to both Ben Huffman and James “Jamie” Richardson for their amazing and studious work this Fall — one of the most challenging and difficult in the history of the Commonwealth.

Huffman is the Racing Secretary for both Churchill Downs and Keeneland, and he master-minded a series of races for three months that catapulted Kentucky racing to the tops in the country, if not the world.

The September, October and November race meets — with included the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs the first weekend in November — were three of the best. As in, ever. The race cards were full of major Stakes events, allowance races and claimers that attracted full, competitive and highly contested fields. Each day provided handicappers and fans alike with plenty of challenges, and many highlights.

Job well done.

Richardson is the track superintendent at Churchill Downs. Some how, through one of the wettest Fall seasons in history and one of the coldest winds to emerge this early in Kentucky in recent memory — he managed to get both the Churchill Downs’ main track and turf course ready for the world’s most prestigious two days of International competition — the Breeders’ Cup.

And, guess how many horses had an issue exiting any one of the championship events?

Can you remember any?

Can you name one?

Truly, at the end of a long year of racing, that is truly amazing. And, a credit to the person and people that got the track(s) ready for not only those two days of racing, but for the entire meet that followed.

The weather in Kentucky is never predictable. Hot gives way to cold in the lapse of an hour. Sometimes less. Dry conditions can turn soupy in the matter of minutes. If not sooner. Someone once said, “if you don’t like the weather in the Commonwealth, just stick around for an hour. It is sure to change.”

But there is one thing that is predictable. That the track condition is — and almost sure to be — in prime shape.

We take that for granted. But we shouldn’t.

Job well done.

Thanks to two of the best racing professionals in the business to help make Kentucky the “Thoroughbred Capital of the World.”











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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