There isn't much I haven't done, seen or experienced in the horse racing industry, including being a racetrack owner as a partner in Kentucky Downs. And the rise of Kentucky Downs is one of the most important developments in Kentucky racing in this decade and one I am most proud of.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission faces a critical decision: Which of three applicants — if any — will get a license to create a harness track in Oak Grove, Ky., near Fort Campbell and Clarksville, Tenn., a short drive to the Greater Nashville market and, most importantly, in the marketplace that Kentucky Downs has developed and already serves.
Yes, I have a vested interest in Kentucky Downs. I'm also drawing upon my background in all facets of the industry and record of service in formulating my views. Here are some facts that deserve the KHRC's careful consideration:
* Kentucky Downs took a huge risk in 2011 when it became the first Kentucky track to invest in Historical Horse Racing (HHR). Some tracks resisted it for years, insisting on full-fledged slot machines and casino gaming. Kentucky Downs' ownership understood that HHR could be a vital new pari-mutuel betting product, based entirely on horses racing, that would greatly enhance purses to help rescue Kentucky's signature industry while delivering millions of dollars in new revenue to the Commonwealth.
Kentucky Downs created an HHR model now being followed elsewhere in Kentucky and the nation. We are extremely proud to have delivered a product that is helping ensure the future viability of Kentucky's racing and breeding industry by fueling purses that make a successful racing circuit possible and attractive to top stables while creating value for Kentucky-bred horses.
* The numbers generated by Kentucky Downs since 2011 have been staggering: $2.9 billion in HHR wagering, $43.7 million in excise tax payments to the Commonwealth, $44 million in purse payments (not counting almost $8 million transferred to other tracks).
* Kentucky Downs always has tried working with other tracks for the betterment of the entire circuit. In conjunction with our horsemen, Kentucky Downs has transferred money to other tracks' purse accounts — to the tune of $2.9 million to Ellis Park and $500,000 each to Churchill Downs and Keeneland just this year. What Kentucky Downs has done is unprecedented, especially among racetracks with different ownership. And it's made a huge difference keeping horses in Kentucky in the summer and strengthening racing in the state.
* Kentucky Downs understands the Nashville market and has developed it in a brilliant, intelligent, strategic manner. If there is to be another racetrack addressing that market, it should be owned and managed by Kentucky Downs so that the operations work in tandem, rather than against each other.
* Kentucky Downs has a contract with the Kentucky Harness Horsemen's Association and has been working with the standardbred horsemen all along on its Oak Grove plans. It would be exciting to see what a Kentucky Downs-owned and managed harness track would do for Kentucky's standardbred sport. This is not just lip service: I co-founded and Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen is past chairman of the multi-breed Kentucky Equine Education Project. We act on our belief that all horse organizations become stronger by working together.
I can assure you this: We at Kentucky Downs would not be looking at Oak Grove as simply a way to enhance corporate profits.
If Kentucky Downs were only interested in short-term profits, it would not be the only track in the state to have the lower “takeout” rates across the board, even though they easily qualify for the higher tax rate on bettors that are readily available to them. Handicappers have recognized Kentucky Downs as the country's most player-friendly track — a status backed by the $36.4 million bet on the 2018 five-date race meet, up 20-percent over last year's record meet.
I believe that most racing commissions would applaud and support the kind of risk-taking and business performance Kentucky Downs has demonstrated.
Kentucky Downs has earned a default acknowledgment that its market should not be unreasonably invaded or cut off. On top of all this, the commission imposed an impossibly short time – just a few weeks – to consider proposals and the impact not just on Kentucky racing but the local communities involved.
Why the rush to judgment? In fairness to all applicants, there should be a thorough and thoughtful selection process that includes full public hearings and total transparency to the vetting process.
Better to get this decision right than to just get it done.
Bill Casner is a Thoroughbred owner and breeder who began galloping horses at New Mexico's Sunland Park at age 15. He found success in non-racing businesses, then returned to the Thoroughbred industry, co-founding WinStar Farm with Kenny Troutt. Casner has served on numerous industry boards, co-founded the Kentucky Equine Education Project and was chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
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