On Sunday, Dec. 11, I took my first visit to the “new and improved” Turfway Park. Granted, I had a vested interest in making that 11/2-hour trek from Louisville to Florence and over the always-dangerous I-71 patch of some concrete and asphalt mixed with a lot of pot holes. We were running our very own Diamond Solitaire in a Stakes event and I was pumped to go and see my favorite horse of all time run for the final time in 2022.
We knew we were up against a stellar group of potential stars in our first attempt outside of Indiana-bred company.
We knew we were not likely to win, and we were taking a big shot to try to earn some more “black type” for her pedigree.
We knew we were asking a lot and dreaming big.
As things turned out, Diamond gave us everything she had — as she always seems to do. But, as things turned out, her best efforts were not good enough to dent the board and she was ready to be turned out for the winter. Heading for home, we knew she was ready to head for her real home at Deerfield Farm in Oldham County. Time for a little “R&R.” Time to chase the wind and her running buddies for the winter. Time for a little holiday.
But, I must add, it was not a wasted trip. Not by any means.
As things turned out, too, I got to witness, see, tour, and enjoy the “new and improved” Turfway Park for my first on-site visitation and inspection, as well. And, that was something I have wanted to do for quite some time.
You see, the “new and improved” Turfway Park has been a long, on-going project since Churchill Downs purchased the track in October of 2019. It was not long after the buy-out that Churchill Downs completely demolished the old clubhouse and grandstand facility — some of which had already been condemned and the public was no longer allowed to access. The old, gray factory — along with the nondescript “Turfway Park” neon sign — was demolished. As country singer Roy Clark used to sing: “Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone.” It was eradicated. Down to the ground. Eyesore no more.
And, you see, it took several years to rebuild during one crisis after another — from Covid through construction shortages and cost surges.
The wait was long. But, as some would say, it was well worth it.
I must say, upon review, I am truly impressed, if not amazed, with the new and improved Turfway Park. Truly amazed. Especially considering some of the comments that I had read going into my first new Turfway Park experience.
Must admit. I am no stranger to “social media” platforms, and I had seen some of the initial “reviews” from some of the cryptic and cynical “fans” who had gone to the new track after its’ grand opening the end of November. I had read about this complaint (the inside TVs are too small and too far away from the simulcasting fans) and that nagging criticism (that the “gaming room” is too big and the “horse racing room” is too small). I knew there were some opinions that the new facility had fallen short of the glory of Kentucky racing venues.
And, granted, if you were looking for a next generation Keeneland or a miniature version of Churchill Downs? Well, I can see why you may be a bit disappointed.
The new and improved Turfway Park is neither of those.
If you were hoping for a throw-back to the old country and an America version of Longchamp or Ascot? Then you will be disappointed.
The new and improved Turfway Park is neither of those, either.
But, if all are honest, this Turfway Park should not have been conceived, designed, built to be any of those iconic racetracks and historic sites.
Turfway Park can never be Keeneland or Churchill Downs. Just can’t.
Turfway Park can not remake history and be a miniature Longchamp or Ascot. Just can’t.
And, the investment of the massive amount of dollars to try to make it so would have been folly.
It would have been crazy.
On the other hand, this new Turfway Park could be the best track that the Northern Kentucky market has ever seen.
And, truthfully, there is no doubt.
It is. Mission accomplished.
It’s the best facility that has ever — EVER — sat on this ground and offered up live Thoroughbred racing in the history of Northern Kentucky. Ever.
As soon as you see the new home of horse racing in Northern Kentucky and pull into the driveway entrance, you see the improvements. Horse statutes greet the customers and point you in the right direction. As you drive into the facility, you see a parking lot that actually has asphalt covering the ground, and lines to mark where the cars should and can assemble. Nice improvement over the previous parking lot that looked as if it was built to service the employees at Chernobyl or Green Mile Island.
The valet parking lane is clearly marked and a pleasant attendant immediately calls upon the customer. If you could find the previous area from the old track, there was never anyone around to meet, greet and service the car. Never. And, back then, on a rainy day, you were likely to return to find your car tires submerged under a foot or two of runoff moisture. Nice way to shine your shoes.
The new place is beautifully crafted and is strikingly appealing. As the professionals in the real estate game would say, it has super “curb appeal.” No need for a gigantic “Welcome Sign.” The beauty of the new place announces that sentiment to any and all.
The walk to the facility is comfortable. And, as soon as you open the doors, you are greeted to excellence. It has the look and feel of a resort destination. Unlike before, you are not greeted by a plume of smoke that covers both the clothes and lungs. Instead? There is a sense of professionalism, ponce and circumstance that has replaced the mood of a roadside pool room.
The “Gaming Room” is where the track hosts the Historical Horse Racing Machines. Scores of people fill the room with activity. The jingle, jangle of the machines roar. The flavor of laughter and conversations overwhelm the spaciousness. It is comfortable. It is attractive. It is active. It is what people want in “today’s racetrack.”
By comparison, the “Simulcast Room” is a bit on the sparse side. It is new and clean, but by its’ very nature it does not have the “glitz” or pizzaz of the “Gaming Room.” Don’t know how you turn a wall of TVS into a betting showplace, but maybe if the Kentucky General Assembly would join all the other states that surround our great Commonwealth (that would be “All of Them”) and allow legalized “Sports Betting” here? At the racetrack? Then maybe this area could better resemble a Vegas-type sports bar in the near future. The TVS could be bigger. The action could be constant. I am willing to bet right now that this area would be amped up, immediately, to accommodate the potential of new customers and fans.
For now, though, the race fans can still obtain seating at a betting carol, which have been arranged to accommodate the racing enthusiast. There are self-service betting terminals and areas for pari-mutuel attendants to work and take “live” wagers, as well. The area could be best described as functional. And, it is.
“The Event” space was created to be used for multiple events. It can be set up to host race fans, who are attending the live races and want a table near the window to capture the action on the track. In heated comfort. In style. Or? It can be set up to host concerts, weddings, civic and social events and play to major corporate retreats and seminars.
On the night before we arrived, the new and improved Turfway Park hosted its’ first major concert event. Country star Sara Evans was in town to play to a sold-out audience. The “Event Room” was set up to perfection. Hundreds of people spilled into the room to celebrate. That would have never been possible here in the past. Not even imaginable.
How much economic impact did that event — that single event — have on the area? I am sure some economist can calculate. But I think it is safe to say that it was and future events like it will continue to be substantial. Not a doubt.
Does it create a hardship on the racing fans?
Admittedly, this seating area is not tiered. The view of the racetrack can be compromised. Are there enough to accommodate the demand?
All good questions. Maybe if the demand is significant, then additional seating areas can be added inside and outside, as well. Perhaps the area that separates the new facility from the track surface can become an additional racetrack seating area. I would be in favor of that improvement to the new and improved Turfway Park. Let’s hope that the crowds grow enough to make it needed; to make it a reality.
One thing is for sure. If there is a need for more seats, Churchill Downs has never been shy in putting them in. The past performances are pretty clear. Just take a look at the track in Louisville. Never a year goes by without some major construction project and improvement.
The Owners Room is a nice addition. A little small, but well equipped. And, the staff is remarkably kind and generous.
The Paddock has been remodeled and improved. It is much larger and race fans can move to the edge of the rail to watch the saddling process. Very accommodating. Very attractive.
A huge TV has been erected in the infield to provide coverage of the live race, and it can be viewed from both inside the facility and out. A great improvement.
The Tapeta surface allows for Turfway Park to race safely throughout the winter and helps the track provide some of the best purses and live racing in all of North America. The synthetic surface is far superior to the old polytrack that once was utilized in these parts and has been met with applause from most of the horse people that train and race in Northern Kentucky now.
And, out of sight of the general public, Churchill Downs is also building new barns to accommodate the horses on the backside. A new dormitory for the backside workers should be ready for opening in the next couple of weeks.
Last week, a day after one of the most severe snowstorms to hit Kentucky in the past decade and ushered in sub-zero temps and record-setting wind chill factors, a trainer who has taken up residence in one of the brand new barns at Turfway Park posted some photos on social media.
The caption read that there was a “..foot of snow..” in the barn area. Upon observation, there was a dusting of snow that appeared to amount to an inch that covered the walking area. In addition, the same trainer complained that a water pipe had frozen and running water was not available. The trainer questioned why the owners of Turfway Park had not built the new barns to address winter conditions, since the track runs predominantly in the winter months.
The day after the “incriminating” Twitter Post appeared, and on Christmas Eve, I called Gary Palmisano — the Director of Racing at Churchill Downs — to inquire about the issue. He answered on the third ring. He answered the questions. All.
He explained that there was a design flaw with the new barns and that they were going to be fixed and amended immediately. The same problem showed up in similar barns in other states at tracks owned by other interests, as well. They were fixed. These will be, too.
He explained that the water pipe in question was already being addressed and fixed.
And, he said that Turfway Park’s barn and stable area was being created and remodeled so that it could be open year-round to accommodate trainers who wish to run at all of Kentucky’s racetracks. It will be open from January to December. Including July. As such, the new barns could not be completely enclosed to just provide shelter in the winter months. If they were, those barns would not provide humane conditions for either horse or human in the summer months.
One call. Issues addressed. Concerns fixed. New barns readied.
Back in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, I was asked to serve on the Kentucky Backside Improvement Commission by then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson. At that time, those of us that served on that board elected to spend tax money generated from pari-mutuel handle to build some new barns at Turfway Park. That was some 32 years ago.
Now, new barns are being built. Again. (Just a question here…what other tracks in North America have built new barns in the last year? Last few years? Horseshoe Indiana and Canterbury Downs. Are there any others?)
Now, a new dormitory for backside workers is under the final phase of construction. Soon, it will provide updated living conditions for those that occupy the barn areas. Thank God.
Now, a new and improved Turfway Park sits aglow. And, awaits. And, is open for business.
One that is immeasurably better.
One that is a bright and shining attraction.
One that the entire horse industry and community can be proud to call its’ own.
One that can attract the likes of Sara Evans.
One that can — and, in all probability, will — get better. And, better. And, better.
Prior to my recent visit, the last time I had been on location at Turfway Park was a couple of years ago for the running of the Jeff Ruby Steaks in March. At that time, Turfway Park accommodated the overflow crowd by erecting a huge tent near the quarter pole of the racetrack. Legislators attended. Local government officials attended. Dignitaries attended. Somehow, I got in, too.
As fate would have it, a horrific wind storm descended on the area about an hour or so before the big race. The light standards that lined the racetrack bent and swayed. The light fixtures and the huge speakers attached to the roof ceiling of the tent started to swing like chimes on a clock. Finally, security agents announced that we all had to evacuate the tent and we all would be instructed to convert to the main grandstand of the old Turfway Park structure.
Along with some high-ranking officials, me and my wife were taken to an area of the grandstand where there was yellow caution and police tape restricting entrance. The tape was cut. We were led inside.
Once there, we all noticed that there were signs taped to the walls and pillars, announcing that the area was considered to be “condemned” by local, oversight officials and was not safe or suitable for occupancy.
One person in our party had the nerve to speak up:
“Do you think we are safer in the tent with the swinging speakers or up here?”
Another person answered the question:
“Neither. We should consider running away — as fast as we can.”
There was not a hint of joking in her voice.
Today, there is no need to run away.
Today, there are some reasons to run to the new and improved Turfway Park.
That, my race friends, is what I call new and improved.
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