09/05/2013 3:05PM

Kentucky Downs: Rich purses bring national attention to rural track

Shannon Hargis
The five-race Kentucky Turf Cup series at Kentucky Downs will offer $1 million in stakes purses Sept. 14.

Kentucky Downs long has been known as quaint and unique, a country track where the lush and undulating turf course and an understated vibe have made a day trip to rural south-central Kentucky a memorable one for many.

Yet after some 20 years of abbreviated September meets, Kentucky Downs suddenly has become even more charming – at least to horsemen. Why? There’s gold in them thar hills on the Tennessee border.

People do double takes when becoming aware of the new purse thresholds at Kentucky Downs. They border on outlandish – allowances worth as much as $96,000 and 2-year-old maiden races for as much as $90,000. And, not surprisingly, these fattened purses have led to horsemen bum-rushing the Kentucky Downs entry box.

The first of five 2013 programs Saturday drew large-to-overflowing fields vying for more than $1 million, with three $150,000 stakes anchoring a 10-race card that starts at 1:35 p.m. Central.

In all, more than $4.5 million is available to be paid out during the five-day meet in purse money and other incentives (i.e., Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund bonuses and $500 enter-and-start stipends paid to non-purse earners in every race).

“We anticipated a strong racing program based on the purses and our great turf course, but frankly, I was surprised at how overwhelming it has been,” said Corey Johnsen, the longtime racing executive who has masterminded the remarkable resurgence of Kentucky Downs since he and his partners purchased the track in 2007. “It’s obvious we’ve got the attention of the nation’s horsemen.”

Among the trainers represented Saturday are such nationally recognized figures as Graham Motion, Christophe Clement, Bill Mott, Jonathan Sheppard, and Wesley Ward, while the jockey colony also will be top-class.

Johnsen said revenue from Instant Racing machines that became operational two years ago are providing “more than 70 percent” of the purse money. Overall, purses will be more than double what was paid out in 2012, he said.

“This is what we set out to do six or seven years ago,” Johnsen said. “We really wanted to make a difference for the Kentucky racing circuit and the national racing scene overall. We’re thrilled with how it’s come together.”

After opening day, the meet will consist of three Wednesdays (Sept. 11, 18, and 25) and one more Saturday (Sept. 14), when the five-race Kentucky Turf Cup series will offer $1 million in stakes purses.

The two Saturdays will overlap with programs at Churchill Downs, where a 12-day, weekends-only meet was set to start Friday. The last three Kentucky Downs races will overlap with the first three races of the Downs After Dark program this Saturday at Churchill, while an afternoon card Sept. 14 at Churchill means the two tracks will run concurrently most of that day.

Eight jockeys riding Saturday at Kentucky Downs will board a charter plane shortly after the third and final stakes, the Ladies Marathon (race 9), in an attempt to make the latter portion of the Churchill card.

John Lies will call the races again, and Gary West is back to provide paddock commentary and handicapping analysis throughout the meet. The “Night School” crew also will be on hand Saturday for fan education.

The weather outlook for Saturday in the greater Nashville, Tenn., area is ideal, with sunshine and a high of 90 degrees in the forecast.