Thoroughbred Racing in Kentucky Stronger Than Ever

Kentucky Derby
The 143rd Kentucky Derby was a massive success. Photo credit: Churchill Downs

There is much more to Thoroughbred breeding and racing in Kentucky – and elsewhere for that matter – than the races and auctions.

On Monday, two days after the Kentucky Derby, officials with the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet announced that tourism in the state was up 5 percent in 2016, to $14.5 billion.

That marked the strongest year-to-year growth rate since 2005.

Not all of that, obviously, is related to the state’s horse industry, but a sizeable chunk certainly is.

The Kentucky Derby used to be solely about a horse race; arguably the greatest horse race run each year.

Now, however, the Kentucky Derby is about much, much more. It is an experience that is centered on a horse race. Much more activity surrounds it.

In my role as restaurant owner and caterer, I was at Buffalo Trace distillery May 4 and 5. Kentucky Oaks day and the preceding day have become the two biggest days of the year for visitors to Kentucky’s distilleries.

I spoke to about 1,000 people over those two days, from many different states and a few foreign countries. Some were quite knowledgeable about the Thoroughbred industry. Others knew very little.

But they all traveled to Kentucky to be a part of the Derby “experience.”

This meant not only going to the Oaks and/or Derby but also visiting a distillery (or two), going to other places such as the Louisville Slugger Museum, Kentucky Horse Park or Old Friends.

Two of the larger groups we fed had spent another part of their day at various horse farms, including Adena Springs and WinStar.

A small family group of just six people had visited Claiborne Farm, Taylor Made, Ashford Stud and Gainesway. The father of the family nearly teared up when telling me about seeing the graveyard at Claiborne.

Not that many years ago, most farms closed their doors to visitors. Today, they see that allowing tours helps sell the industry they are a part of.

The father of that family was wearing a Claiborne hat he had purchased in the farm’s gift shop.

One of the groups we fed was comprised of employees of Tower Hill Insurance. Not surprisingly, they were wearing hats, jackets, etc., sporting the Dixiana Farm logo. The farm, which also incorporates the acreage of the old Domino Stud, is owned by William Shively, who founded and owns Tower Hill.

Kudos to Shively for bringing some of his Florida-based employees and their spouses to Kentucky to enjoy the festivities and activities surrounding the Derby.

These visitors not only plan trips to tourist locations and horse farms, they stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, shop at malls, etc. Because of horse racing, they contribute millions to the state’s economy.

And they do something else, too; they bet.

In that exercise, they were not alone.

Churchill Downs announced the Derby day wagering topped $200 million for the first time, hitting $209.2 million, a 9 percent increase from 2016.

In addition, all-source wagering on the Derby race was up 12 percent to $139.2 million.

All-sources handle throughout Derby week also established a record, at $284.1 million.

Horse racing is a $4 billion industry in Kentucky, with the Kentucky Derby alone generating about $400 million in economic impact. The latest study on the Kentucky Derby festival, which encompasses dozens of events leading up to the race, puts its economic impact at more than $125 million.

Tourism in Kentucky is at an all-time high, and Thoroughbred racing, as it just evidenced, is helping lead that charge.

It is the state’s top agricultural crop and one of the state’s top tourism draws. It is responsible for roughly 100,000 direct and indirect jobs, about 15,000 of those being tourism related.

Every owner and breeder, whether in Kentucky or any other place a stallion stands, a mare foals, a horse races, should stop and think about how important the Kentucky Derby is to the industry.

It is our Super Bowl, and it is thriving.

It’s tough. Johnny thought maybe he wished he went on with her a little bit but we did that last time and it didn’t work. The winner did everything wrong and was impressive. We’ll see what happens. She’s a Canadian bred. She’s got a lot of options.”

Mark Casse, Trainer, Wonder Gadot
  • Dan Liebman

    Dan Liebman

      Dan Liebman attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1973 when, from the infield, he saw a glimpse of Secretariat, still today the greatest horse he has seen race. He later worked full time in equine journalism for more than 25 years, his last full time position as Editor in Chief ...

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