04/17/2012 9:14AM

Turfway Park: Ohio group adds to ownership of track

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A partnership that is building two casinos in Ohio has purchased an additional 40 percent stake in Turfway Park, bringing its total stake in the northern Kentucky track to 90 percent.

Rock Ohio Ventures, a partnership that includes Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, purchased the 40 percent stake for $6.2 million from Keeneland, which will retain a 10 percent share of the track. The stake purchased by Rock Ohio will be merged with a 50 percent stake in Turfway already owned by Rock Ohio Caesars, which is co-developing the two Ohio casinos with Rock Ohio Ventures.

The purchase gives the Ohio casino developers additional protection should Kentucky decide to legalize casinos at racetracks. Along with a casino in Cleveland, Rock Ohio Caesars is currently building a casino in Cincinnati just over the Ohio River from Turfway.

Casino companies are more and more frequently reaching out to purchase racetracks as hedges on their existing casino properties or as targets for further growth. Two years ago, Rock Ohio Caesars purchased Thistledown in Cleveland to protect its planned casino there, and, now that Gov. John Kasich has signed an order allowing slot machines at Ohio racetracks, the company is considering moving the track to Akron so that it can capitalize on a new market.

The acquisition was approved by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission at a meeting on Monday, though several commissioners objected to the acquisition without receiving assurances that the company would maintain live racing dates at the track. Turfway currently runs the most live racing dates of any track in Kentucky.

Bob Elliston, the president of Turfway, said that Rock Ohio Ventures would use its “strengths” in marketing and event planning to improve the track. He also said that under existing Kentucky regulations dates cannot be significantly reduced at the track without the approval of horsemen.

Also at the Monday meeting, regulators approved a plan by Keeneland to open drive-through betting windows at the Kentucky Horse Park and the Thoroughbred Training Center just north of Lexington on Kentucky Oaks Day and Kentucky Derby day.