09/16/2009 11:00PM

Kentucky Downs optimistic on VLTs


Ever since - if not before - legal duels with pistols were staged by Sam Houston and others on this parcel of land in the 1800s, contentiousness has been a way of life at what now is known as Kentucky Downs. Like pretty much all racing entities in the state of Kentucky, the track's current financial crunch forebodes a precarious future, owing primarily to the intractability of the ever-pressing issue of alternative gaming.

Situated some 35 miles to the north of Nashville and a stone's throw from the Tennessee border, Kentucky Downs has long been regarded by business suitors as an untapped gold mine - but only if fun-seekers from Tennessee, where virtually all forms of gambling are banned, can be lured across state lines. Clearly, the preferred method would be video-lottery terminals, which Corey Johnsen, president of Kentucky Downs since 2007, has been actively seeking as a vocal member of the racing industry's unofficial swarm of lobbyists.

"When we've done our projections, we've found that 90 percent of any new gaming revenue here would come from out of state," Johnsen said this week from Kentucky Downs, where the turf-only track kicks off its annual meet Saturday near Franklin, Ky. "That's found money that could be used for the horse industry, for the commonwealth of Kentucky, and for Kentucky Downs."

In line with all other state tracks this year, Kentucky Downs has chopped purses for the 2009 meet. The anchor race, the Kentucky Cup Turf, is worth only $150,000, down from a former high of twice that amount. The two supporting features, the Kentucky Cup Ladies Turf and Kentucky Cup Turf Dash (there once were three, with the Kentucky Cup Mile having been canceled several years ago) now are mere $50,000 races. The track also has downsized its traditional meet from six to four days.

Kentucky Downs will put on its best face possible Saturday. Besides the unique and always popular European style of racing, the track also will offer live music, hat contests, outdoor grilling, kids' games, and a post-races concert, making for an upbeat opener. Behind closed office doors, however, the mood is not as light, and for obvious reasons.

"If the industry stays united, it's not a matter of if, but when, VLTs will become a reality," Johnsen said. "That's exciting. We have reason to be optimistic, and we can't lose sight of our purpose. I firmly believe there is no other solution out there.

"The Kentucky VLT situation is much bigger than Kentucky Downs, but from our own perspective, I can see the day when we could generate a lot of purse money and have great racing here, with an increased number of days and the means to help fill out a vibrant circuit. It's something we look forward to every day."

Track promoting Borel appearance

Kentucky Downs is touting the appearance of Calvin Borel as a major highlight on opening day. Borel has competed at Kentucky Downs in most prior seasons, particularly in the Kentucky Cup races, but never has his fame quotient been so high.

"Meet Calvin Borel of Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra fame" is the most prominent feature on the homepage of the track's website.

Borel, who won his second Derby in May when riding Mine That Bird to victory, will be available for a one-hour meet-and-greet session starting at 11:30 a.m. Central. He has mounts in all three Kentucky Cup events, including My Happiness for longtime client Bobby Barnett in the Kentucky Cup Turf.

* Kentucky Downs will host its annual handicapping tournament next Saturday, with three spots in the National Handicapping Championship finals in Las Vegas next January and $10,300 at stake.

Also, twinspires.com is hosting online handicapping tournaments on each of the next two Saturdays (Sept. 19 and 26) with a variety of major prizes on the line. More information is available on the website.

* There might be good reason for a late-arriving crowd at simulcast outlets around the state Saturday. The University of Louisville will be playing the University of Kentucky in their annual Governor's Cup rivalry football game, with kickoff set for noon Eastern in Lexington.

* Chris Emigh, a longtime fixture on the Chicago circuit, will be riding regularly in Kentucky this fall. Emigh, 38, will ride at Keeneland (Oct. 9-31) and Churchill (Nov. 1-28) with Terry "Jaws" Miller as his agent. Emigh is one of several out-of-state jockeys riding Saturday at Kentucky Downs, along with Brice Blanc, Rosemary Homeister Jr., E.T. Baird, and Eddie Perez.

* John Lies, who has called races at Lone Star Park since 2005 and serves as an in-house television commentator at Del Mar, will be back for his second meet as the race-caller at Kentucky Downs. Lies replaced the late Luke Kruytbosch last September.

* In previous years, the Weekend Delight or Marfa Stakes had been run at Turfway Park as part of the melded program that featured the Kentucky Cup turf series. But both of those races, like the Kentucky Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, were scrapped this year because of financial considerations.