Johnsen: ‘Nothing More Important To Kentucky Downs Than Safety’

by | 10.20.2015 | 7:19am
Racing at Kentucky Downs

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) announced today that Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky., 35 miles north of Nashville, Tenn., has earned reaccreditation from the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance.

Originally opened in 1990 as the steeplechase venue Dueling Grounds, the mile-and-five-sixteenths turf course was renamed Kentucky Downs in 1998. In 2007 it was purchased by a group of investors who helped to add Historical Horse Racing games that have increased purse money to unprecedented levels. September's 2015 race meeting set new records for handle ($16.8 million), single day handle ($5.07 million), purses paid ($6.6 million) and average field size (10.6 horses per race).

The reaccreditation of Kentucky Downs was the culmination of a lengthy process that began with the track's completion of a 48-page written application and continued as the track hosted several meetings with Alliance officials. An on-site review included inspections of all facets of the racing operations. Interviews were conducted with track executives, racetrack personnel, jockeys, owners, trainers, veterinarians, stewards and regulators. The inspection team was comprised of Jim Gates, consultant and former general manager of Churchill Downs; Dr. Ron Jensen, DVM, former equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board; Mike Kilpack, security and integrity consultant and past chairman of the Organization of Racetrack Investigators; and Steve Koch, executive director of the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance.

Alliance certification standards address an extensive list of safety and integrity concerns within six broad areas: injury reporting and prevention; creating a safer racing environment; aftercare and transition of retired racehorses; uniform medication, testing and penalties; safety research; and wagering security.

“The Alliance is especially impressed with Kentucky Downs' small-track footprint achieving big-track results in the areas of safety and integrity,” said Koch. “Kentucky Downs clearly is committed to a grade one impact on the North American racing landscape and we applaud the positive examples they set.”

Kentucky Downs received its initial Alliance accreditation in 2011. All accreditations and re-accreditations carry an effective period of two years.

“I'm a big believer in having standards for safety within our industry,” said Kentucky Downs President Corey Johnsen. “Someday every track needs to be part of this program and racing commissions should include in their rules that you have to be accredited to get a license to operate. There's nothing more important to Kentucky Downs than safety and we're finding more and more that if we do a number of simple things that we can have a lot of success.”

Kentucky Downs is one of 23 racing facilities fully accredited by the Alliance that together host 94 percent of Grade I stakes and attract more than 70 percent of North American pari-mutuel handle. The others are Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park, Canterbury Park, Churchill Downs, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Gulfstream Park West, Indiana Grand, Keeneland, Laurel Park, Los Alamitos Race Course, Monmouth Park, Pimlico Race Course, Santa Anita Park, Saratoga Race Course, Suffolk Downs, Sunland Park, Turfway Park and Woodbine.

The NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance is a standing organization whose purpose is to establish standards and practices to promote safety and integrity in horseracing and to secure their implementation. Corporate partners of the Alliance include Lockton Insurance and Hagyard Equine Medical Institute. Information on the Alliance, including the Alliance Code of Standards, can be found at


Kentucky Downs President Corey Johnsen has been in the Thoroughbred racing business for more than 30 years, mostly as a racetrack executive. He has been involved in the opening or re-opening of four different tracks: Remington Park in Oklahoma City, Okla.; Lone Star Park near Dallas; Hipódromo de las Américas in Mexico City; and Maroñas National Racetrack in Montevideo, Uruguay. He led Lone Star Park through its hosting of the 2004 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships before assuming executive positions within the Magna Entertainment Corporation. In 2007 Johnsen and Nashville businessman Ray Reid formed a partnership to purchase a majority interest in Kentucky Downs.  

On the occasion of Kentucky Downs' third two-year accreditation by the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance, Johnsen was interviewed by Jim Mulvihill of the NTRA on topics including Historical Horse Racing, the business sense of a focus on safety and what the future holds for his popular Franklin, Ky., racecourse.

Jim Mulvihill: Could you refresh my memory on how you came to be a part-owner of Kentucky Downs?

Corey Johnsen: I put together a group of partners and we were able to contact Brad Kelley, who was the majority owner of Kentucky Downs at that time. Our meeting with him was very interesting. He basically said that he was willing to sell us the track because he believed that we had a chance to make a difference helping the Kentucky horse industry, as well as Simpson County, where the track is located and Brad was raised. We were able to make a deal, and in 2007 we took over the reins.

In the early years it was a little light. We offered less than $1 million dollars in purses for our first few meetings and that was over anywhere from four to six days. To come to a point where we're offering more than $7 million in purses during a season is very gratifying. I believe that Kentucky Downs has added value to Kentucky-breds and has brought attention to the fact there's lucrative purse and Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund money available.

We've been able to make the strides because we have an alternative revenue source and that's pari-mutuel wagering on historical horse racing. We began offering that type of wagering in 2011 and the whole situation changed. It allowed us to do the things we'd always wanted to. Like any business we want a reasonable return on investment for our partners, but also we want to make a difference in the horse industry and promote everything that's right about our sport.

JM: Could you have envisioned in 2007 that you would have gotten to this point so quickly?

CJ: In 2007 we were hopeful that we would be in this position with an alternative form of revenue but nothing really happened from 2007 to 2010 in terms of legislation. So taking the regulatory approach to create a new pari-mutuel wager on Historical Horse Racing basically saved Kentucky Downs and, I think, is going to make a huge difference in the Kentucky racing and breeding industry.

I don't think people understand how important it is that the Red Mile and Keeneland have spent more than $40 million opening a first-class Historical Horse Racing and gaming center in Lexington. That's a great market and they basically have the gaming exclusive for it. You're going to see in 2016, and especially 2017, the purses at Keeneland are going to be tremendous. And I believe the resurgence of the Red Mile is going to bring back the Kentucky Standardbred industry.

JM: There's a lot more to the success and popularity of Kentucky Downs than just Instant Racing. What are some of the other strides that have been made there that contribute to your positive reputation?

CJ: The foundation for any racetrack's success is its track surface. We've placed a great emphasis on the safety and consistency of our turf course. We brought in [track superintendent] Ron Moore, who has a lifetime of experience in racing. He was actually the track super at Santa Anita in the 1970s and worked with me at Lone Star Park when we hosted the Breeders' Cup in 2004. We've spared no expense and we're beginning our 2016 track maintenance program already. You have to do a lot of work in the fall in terms of aerating and top-dressing and fertilizations and over-seeding.

Last season we worked with Joe Carr and installed the Duralock rail system, which is something I'm proud of. It is the safest rail I've ever seen. Years ago the industry felt like rails needed to be sturdy and metal, and then there were the covered goose necks and such. All of those were admirable attempts at a safe rail but I believe that with the advances is PVC technology, this rail is second to none.

I believe strongly that tracks and racing commissions in North America need to embrace surveillance technology. We're doing a good job with the integrity of the sport in terms of testing, penalties, and investigations, but the missing link now is surveillance. I've learned a great deal from our gaming operation about the importance of surveillance. We have more than 120 cameras monitored on a 24-hour basis. We were able to add more than 20 cameras to our stable area that are monitored by the same group. So if there are any questions or problems in the stable area you're able to see and react quickly. I think in the future you'll see cameras in stable areas all over the country. It's in the best interest of the trainers that are playing by the rules but it's also useful for events like a loose horse or a fire. Not only can you ask a question if someone shows up at a barn at 2 a.m. but you can see a dangerous situation before it escalates.

I'll also add that we've experimented with takeout. A few years ago we began to offer the lowest takeout in North America and we've seen horseplayers respond to this. There is a balancing act because some states have fixed pari-mutuel tax rates so you can't lower the takeout too much. We've been able to increase our handle significantly over the last few years and I believe the low takeout rate is one of the main reasons. I hope that other tracks will take a look at our rates and the success story we've seen.

JM: So much of what you're detailing relates to safety and integrity so let me ask you directly – why is it important for your track to be accredited by the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance?

CJ: I'm a big believer in having standards for safety within our industry. To believe that and not be part of the accreditation program would be hypocritical. Someday every track needs to be part of this program and racing commissions should include in their rules that you have to be accredited to get a license to operate. There's nothing more important to Kentucky Downs than safety and we're finding more and more that if we do a number of simple things that we can have a lot of success.

Here's an example. We work very closely with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and they do a great job on pre-race exams. They have detailed records and they have a lot of qualified veterinarians who go out with their iPads and look at every horse. We always have horses that ship in and anything can happen in a van so it's an important double-check. Done properly they're a big part of safety, and they're making a difference.

JM: Do safety initiatives get enough notice from fans and horsemen? It often seems like so much is done behind the scenes and doesn't necessarily make an impact on who races where or who bets where.

CJ: We had the most talented group of horses ever run at Kentucky Downs this season, top to bottom. I believe part of that is the fact that horsemen are gaining confidence that if they're going to ship the best horse in their barn that they're going to run over a course that is safe and consistent. Statistics have shown that horses come out of races at Kentucky Downs moving forward and they go on to win at Keeneland or other tracks. A well-maintained turf course is easier on their joints and our demanding stretch run that goes a little uphill gets them fit.

JM: So a focus on safety and going through the accreditation process can be good for business?

CJ: If you have safe conditions at your track fewer horses will have injuries, which means more starters per race, which equals higher handle. It is critically important to our business to get the average field size to increase and the best way to do it is to have a safe situation at your track.

It's also important to the horseplayer. Unless you have the confidence of the horseplayer in the integrity of what they're wagering on you have nothing. The safety accreditation program is a very important tool in making sure that tracks are following the same protocols in maximizing the integrity of the sport.

When we talk about safety and integrity, it's not just racing safety, it's also the integrity of the sport, from tote standards to stewards. The Safety & Integrity inspection team is a group that has 100-plus years of experience and tracks get to draw on that experience to make sure they have all the best safeguards in place.

We've all seen the DFS (Daily Fantasy Sports) controversies going on and the last thing racing needs is to have anything like that happen again [as with the 2002 Breeders' Cup Pick Six tote security scandal].

JM: What made you want to open an Old Friends outpost at Kentucky Downs?

CJ: You can never do too much to take care of retired racehorses. About two or three years ago I met [Old Friends founder] Michael Blowen at Wallace Station (a popular restaurant in Versailles, Ky.) and we decided that we needed to do something together. Finally it just hit us that we have additional room at Kentucky Downs and we have stabling so why couldn't we be an affiliate of Old Friends? Today we have retired racehorses living at Kentucky Downs and it provides a really good tourist attractions for Franklin, Ky., and Simpson County. I think there are other tracks that have extra pasture space that we hope might follow suit.

JM: I presume it's not breaking the bank to do this?

CJ: Old Friends is responsible for the animal husbandry and we're responsible for the facility, the maintenance, and some of the marketing. Simpson County pitches in with a coordinated marketing plan and staffing the welcome center. It's a great formula that works for all three of the partners in it and we're glad to be the first to try it.

JM: So what does the future hold for Kentucky Downs?

CJ: We have plans on the drawing board to expand the number of Historical Horse Racing terminals in 2016 so I'm comfortable saying that we are going to offer increased purses and KTDF incentives. In the last few years we've actually sent money from our purse account to Ellis Park to build on the overall Kentucky circuit and we plan to increase that amount next year. Wouldn't it be great if Ellis had $40,000 maiden special weights and allowance races? I think it would add to the circuit and more Kentucky horsemen would be able to stay home with their quality horses.

We want to continue to support different entities. We're committed to using our live race meet as a platform to raise money for important charities in horse racing. In this past live race meet we raised money for the PDJF (Permanently Disabled Jockeys' Fund), Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Thoroughbred Charities of America, Old Friends, Horses and Hope and the Kentucky Equine Education Project. We'll continue to find new ways to support those causes.

To learn more about Kentucky Downs, visit the track website at

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram