09/06/2012 3:05PM

Kentucky Downs: Purses swell to $2.4 million for six-day meet

Photos By Z/Keeneland
Noble's Promise is one of the prime contenders in the Kentucky Cup Turf Dash.

An advertisement for Kentucky Downs shows a bar graph comparing purses from last September with what is expected to be paid out when a six-day meet commences Saturday. The bar representing 2011 is a stub: $750,000. The one for 2012 is a tower: $2.4 million.

With horsemen lured by these dramatically inflated purses fueled by revenues from Instant Racing machines installed at the south-central Kentucky track a little more than a year ago, cram-packed fields will make their duties more difficult than normal. The nine-race Saturday opener could be contested by as many as 100 horses, as only eight of the 108 on the program are also-eligibles.

Although horseplayers don’t much care, John Lies, the Kentucky Downs race-caller, and Steve Peery, the Equibase chart-caller, could be in for a tough six days.

“There is no doubt the success of our Instant Racing machines has been overwhelming, and that’s reflected in what we’re now able to offer horsemen,” said Corey Johnsen, a longtime racing executive who, along with Nashville businessman Ray Reid, led a group that acquired Kentucky Downs in 2007. “The leveling of the competitive playing field shows what can happen. This was part of the vision we’ve always had for Kentucky Downs.”

While Turfway Park runs simultaneously this month when struggling for its mere survival in the northern part of the state and while holding out on whether to implement Instant Racing, Kentucky Downs is taking advantage of its proximity to Tennessee, where gambling options are virtually non-existent. A slice of the spacious Kentucky Downs property actually is in Tennessee, with the balance located in the Bluegrass State a few miles east of the small town of Franklin.

The racing is done exclusively on turf, where an undulating 1 5/16-mile course lends a unique flavor. A colonial-style grandstand is situated a quarter-mile upstretch from the finish line, while a more casual picnic-and-bleachers area on the wire is where racing officials and the jockeys’ quarters are located. The entire layout is a major departure from conventional racetracks, and first-time visitors are often pleasantly surprised at the novelty of the experience.

The stakes program, also noticeably enhanced, will be spread over the two Saturdays of the meet. Opening day will be anchored by three straight stakes worth $75,000 each: the Kentucky Cup Turf Dash, the Franklin-Simpson Mile, and the Kentucky Cup Ladies Turf.

The six-furlong Turf Dash (race 6) drew a strong field led by $1.1 million earner Noble’s Promise, whose connections, trainer Ken McPeek and jockey David Cohen, teamed two Saturdays ago with Golden Ticket, the dead-heat winner of the Travers. Other contenders in a field of 11 include Good Lord, Zeb, Delaunay, and Will’s Wildcat.

The Franklin-Simpson Mile (race 7) has Seruni, based at Keeneland with trainer Phil Oliver, as the 9-5 morning-line choice in a field of 10 older horses. Top challengers include San Antone, Depeche Chat, and Global Power.

The one-mile Ladies Turf (race 8), with a full field of 12, looks like a real scramble, with Sea Level Drive, Ridgester, Ruthville, and Affair Dabbler all likely to attract substantial play.

The Saturday opener also includes two $60,000 maiden-special races and one $62,000 allowance. Half of their purses come from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, so only the nominees to that program stand to max out on the available monies.

Next Saturday will bring the annual meet highlight and the track’s only graded race, the Grade 3, $200,000 Kentucky Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles, along with three other stakes. Nominations for that quartet of races closed Thursday.

The riding colony will include not only Cohen, Kent Desormeaux, and Eddie Martin Jr., all prodigal returnees or new to the circuit, but also Corey Lanerie, Calvin Borel, Brian Hernandez Jr., Shaun Bridgmohan, and other names familiar to Kentucky racing fans.

In a departure from prior years – four-day meets have been the recent norm – Kentucky Downs will run the next two Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays (Sept. 8-10-12-15-17-19), with first post set for 1:35 p.m. Central each day.

Unlike in prior years, Kentucky Downs races will not be interspersed with Turfway programs. The tracks traditionally had collaborated on 16- or 17-race marathons on coinciding Saturdays.