09/08/2011 12:44PM

Kentucky Downs: A racetrack, plain and simple

A vast field behind Kentucky Downs’s main building is part of what gives the track its unique feel.

It’s a long way from Kentucky Downs to pretty much anywhere else in racing. That’s okay with Ken Ramsey, who has come an even longer way from his rural Kentucky roots to make it big in the game.

Ramsey intends to make the nearly three-hour drive Saturday from the Lexington, Ky., area to reach the countryside of south-central Kentucky, where the four-day Kentucky Downs meet will begin with the grass version of the Kentucky Cup series, highlighted by the Grade 3, $150,000 Kentucky Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles. Ramsey is represented in the race by Rules of Honor, a 4-year-old homebred seeking his first stakes win.

“I’ve been to Kentucky Downs a few times and really enjoyed it there,” said Ramsey, a perennial leading owner on the Kentucky circuit and elsewhere. “It’s a different kind of place, my kind of place. Whenever I take a trip to a racetrack, it’s with the intention of leading one of my horses into the winner’s circle. So when we come down there Saturday, hopefully, we’ll be a winner.”

Kentucky Downs, located some 35 miles north of Nashville near the Kentucky border town of Franklin, began in 1990 as a steeplechase track known as Dueling Grounds, so named because of a pistol duel that took place near there involving the legendary Sam Houston in 1826. The track switched to flat racing two years later, and after a series of financial and legal scandals, a partnership led by Turfway Park purchased the track in 1997 and renamed it Kentucky Downs. Corey Johnsen and partners then bought majority interest in the track in 2007.

The track is unlike any other in America. The freestanding two-story main building, which houses all the functions vital to conducting a racing and simulcast operation, includes dining rooms, simulcasting areas, and a large bingo hall that has yielded an important part of the track’s revenue through the years.

With its proximity to the Nashville market – a fraction of the track property is actually in Tennessee – Kentucky Downs long has been seen as a sleeping giant in the ever-pressing issue of alternative gaming. On Sept. 1, it became the first track in the state to offer the parimutuel video game Instant Racing after investing about $3 million and installing 200 machines, but a legal battle with an anti-gambling group, The Family Foundation, has threatened to close the glitzy new room. A court ruling was expected this week.

Step outside the main building, and it is the vast expanse of outdoors that gives Kentucky Downs its unique feel.

The turf-only course is an irregularly shaped oval, with undulating terrain being a main feature of its approximately 1 3/8-mile circumference. There is no toteboard, and the stretch run of nearly three furlongs often fools viewers as to where the race actually ends because the television director suddenly switches to a second pan camera for the final furlong or so.

The spacious paddock looks like it was set up just somewhere out in a field, and it was. A bare-bones, lofted wooden structure situated on an unadorned finish line houses the stewards, placing judges, photo-finish equipment, and race-caller Jon Lies. Horsemen and fans alike mix and mingle around this central location, and maybe a dozen mutuels windows under a stark roofed shelter are close by. It is quaint, with carnival-style trailers for concession stands, although many fans bring picnic baskets and coolers and sprawl out on blankets to make a day of it. The place is about as country as you can get.

For the seven years before Johnsen took over, Ryan Driscoll was the general manager of Kentucky Downs.

“I remember when I first got there, they handed me the keys and said, ‘Here you go, have a race meet,’ ” said Driscoll, now in private business in Dallas. “There wasn’t a handbook for how you did things there.

“When it came to the live meets, we basically settled into a philosophy of letting people enjoy it on their own terms. People bring their homemade fried chicken and whatever else and just enjoy the day. It’s laid-back and peaceful, very unique.”

Johnsen and his ownership partners bought the track on the premise of making it a profitable year-round venture by eventually being permitted to implement gaming and capitalize on the gambling-starved market of Tennessee, where the lottery is the only legal form of gambling. He said the four-day September meet offers a peek into the live-racing experience for people who might not otherwise have such a chance.

“The way the state laws are written, it’s very difficult to make money here through your year-round simulcast operations,” Johnsen said. “The ultimate play is, obviously, through alternative gaming, and we’re thrilled to offer Instant Racing and strongly believe it’s going to become a major revenue source for the racing industry in Kentucky.

“This is a great venue to showcase the best that our sport has to offer. There’s nothing like watching those horses come out of that wide, sweeping turn and come down that long stretch. The course is in beautiful shape, and we’re ready to get after it again.”

Ramsey, a self-made multimillionaire from the tiny hamlet of Artemus, Ky., said the aura of Kentucky Downs is typical of what makes racing such an interesting sport.

“You’ve got all these great places to run your horses, and variety is the spice of life, or so they say,” he said.

Ramsey was not in a particularly good mood Tuesday after horses owned by him and his wife, Sarah, went 0 for 7 on Labor Day weekend, including an eighth-place finish by Live in Joy in the Grade 3 Saranac. He said he was “going to be a little more hands-on again” after delegating many racing-related decisions to his handful of trainers, including Mike Maker, who oversees most of the horses he runs in Kentucky.

“There’s a high standard we all have to meet,” said Ramsey, whose stable has won 75 races this year, well short of the 140 races won in both 2008 and 2009.

The Ramseys have raced such standouts as Kitten’s Joy, the 2004 Eclipse champion for turf; Roses In May, winner of the 2005 Dubai World Cup; and Furthest Land, winner of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. A victory at Kentucky Downs on Saturday would mark their fourth graded stakes win of the year.

“We’ve gotten a lot of trophies from a lot of different tracks,” he said. “And it’d sure be nice to add the Kentucky Cup Turf.”