WKY LLC., a partnership between Churchill Downs, Inc. and Keeneland, has edged Caesars Entertainment and Kentucky Downs in a three-way war for a new racing license in Kentucky. In a special meeting on Friday afternoon, a majority of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted to award the dates to WKY, with three commissioners dissenting. The vote marked the first time the commission has given out a new license in 25 years.
The three groups had each submitted proposals to the commission for a new harness racetrack in Christian County, Ky., near the border with Tennessee. WKY anticipates a $150 million construction project which would include space for historical horse racing terminals. Churchill Downs Racetrack president Kevin Flannery estimated the track could generate $20 million each to Thoroughbred and Standardbred purse funds elsewhere in the state.
The application and vetting process for the new race dates was somewhat hurried procedure; a call went out for applications in mid-September, and regulations required the commission to award dates by Nov. 1. The commission agreed by that deadline to approve new race dates, conditional on awarding them to one of the three applicants.
The hurried procedure prompted Kentucky Downs representatives to request the commission take more time to consider before voting.
“We obviously came to the process late. We emphatically really wanted more time because this is such an important decision. Apparently, that fell on deaf ears,” said Ron Winchell, new co-owner of Kentucky downs with Marc Falcone. “The process, I think, was not the best.”
All three applicants gave a short presentation to the committee before the vote, followed by individual question and answer sessions. In its presentation, Kentucky Downs representatives pointed out that awarding the license to one of their two competitors in the application would likely result in Kentucky Downs losing business. In such a situation, new Kentucky Downs owners Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone indicated they would launch a series of marketing and public relations efforts designed to put pressure on the new operator's bottom line–which could also punish the purse funds reliant on those bottom lines.
Caesars Entertainment representative Dan Real expressed frustration after the vote, which was conducted verbally.
“They don't have a signed horsemen's agreement,” Real said of WKY. “They don't have the ability to do simulcasting, they don't have any history, relationships, or marketing in the region, which obviously the other two operators do.
“I believe we had the best presentation. I believe we had the best offer for the state. If anybody follows the way this process has gone, I believe they'd understand the frustration.”
Flannery told media after the meeting that he expected construction would begin at the Oak Grove site as soon as possible.
“We already well on the way in the design process,” said Flannery, who anticipated the track's first race meet would take place in fall 2019.
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