09/15/2017 5:13PM

Kentucky commission head rejects Churchill-Keeneland proposal

Renderings courtesy of Churchill Downs and Keeneland
Proposed racetrack-casinos in Corbin (top) and Oak Grove (bottom).

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The chairman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission late on Friday poured cold water on a joint announcement earlier in the day by Keeneland and Churchill Downs about their plans to apply to the commission for licenses for two new gambling facilities in southern Kentucky, stating flatly that the commission will not consider the joint applications.

Frank Kling, who was appointed chairman of a revamped commission by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin early in 2016, shortly after Bevin took office, said in the statement that the commission had told all racetracks in the state “over the last several months” that it would not consider new applications for racetracks. Bevin, a religious conservative with Tea Party economic beliefs, has said in the past he is opposed to any expansion of gambling in Kentucky.

“Despite that communication, Churchill and Keeneland have chosen to submit an application for new race track facilities,” said the statement, which was also attributed to vice chairman John C. Roach, a former Kentucky Supreme Court chief justice. “At this time, neither of us have any plans to take any action related to this application or any other application for a new race track facility.”

The commission also includes a large contingent of owners and breeders who are generally supportive of plans to raise purses at Kentucky tracks. Keeneland and Churchill had said that they planned to use revenues from the two facilities to boost purses at their existing tracks. Those same commissioners have also typically favored requests made by the two tracks in the past.

Keeneland and Churchill announced the partnership early on Friday morning. During the day, a spokesperson for the racing commission did not return a phone call from Daily Racing Form.

The partners said that they planned to apply for licenses for a small Quarter Horse racetrack in Corbin and a small harness track in Oak Grove, both near the Tennessee border, running approximately a dozen live racing days at each track. The facilities would also offer year-round gambling on devices that closely resemble slot machines known as historical horseracing machines, drawing heavily from customers from across the border in Tennessee.

The Oak Grove track would likely present a competitive threat to an existing racetrack and gambling parlor, Kentucky Downs, which has operated the gambling devices since 2011, generating tens of millions of dollars in commissions for the track’s owners. Kentucky Downs has used revenues from the machines to dramatically boost its purses and yesterday closed its five-day all-turf race meet with record handle numbers.

Keeneland has already partnered with a Lexington harness racing track, The Red Mile, on a gambling parlor near Lexington’s downtown. The parlor opened in 2015 following a $45 million renovation to the Red Mile grandstand.

In June, Churchill received approval from the commission for a gambling parlor located at its former Trackside training facility, with plans for 600 of the devices. At that time, Bevin’s administration did not object to the plans, but Churchill officials had acknowledged privately that the proposal had garnered the administration’s attention. Bevin lives in Louisville.

The statement from Kling said that the commission would study the issues surrounding racing and gambling in Kentucky before deciding on any course of action that would lead to the consideration of new applications.

“It is our hope that in the future we will be able to develop a process and criteria to determine whether any new race track facilities are needed in the Commonwealth,” the statement concluded.

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