At a special meeting convened Tuesday afternoon, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted unanimously to approve the change of control for Turfway Park, clearing the way for Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) to purchase the track for $46 million. Churchill, operating via its wholly-owned subsidiary, NKYRG LLC, announced the deal last week, noting it was contingent upon Commission approval. The closing is expected to take place tomorrow.
Kevin Flannery, president of Churchill Downs Race Track, presented the commission with CDI's initial plans for the facility. CDI plans to hold the upcoming race meet, which runs December to March, and demolish the existing grandstand and associated buildings immediately after. Flannery said simulcasting will be moved to another, to-be-determined location during construction. CDI plans to operate during the same December to March timeframe next season, with the hope being that the majority of the construction will be completed by the end of 2020. The official grand opening for the new facility is slated sometime mid-2021.
Flannery estimates the new Turfway will provide 400 permanent jobs and 800 construction jobs to the Northern Kentucky area.
CDI plans to move some money from its Derby City Gaming facility to Turfway's purse account (at no impact to Churchill's purse account), which would double average purses from roughly $12,000 to roughly $24,000.
“We want to make sure we send a signal to Kentucky's horsemen that Turfway Park is back, and it's going to be here for a long time,” said Flannery.
At the moment, CDI plans to install 1,500 historical horse racing machines, which would be housed in a separate part of the campus from simulcast and live racing facilities. Among the plans, at the request of local officials, are retractable grandstand seats which could allow the clubhouse to be used as event space during the off-season.
“I've been to racetracks that appear like they're more concerned about the gaming part than they are about the racing part,” said Mark Simendinger, vice chairman of the commission, to Flannery. “It's more about the functionality of the space than the horseplayer. I'd encourage you to always keep the horseplayer in mind.”
Flannery said the horseplayer is very much on CDI's mind.
“The buildings that will be built will include not only the grandstand for the live racing but a simulcast center,” he said. “That's obviously very focused on the horseplayer. They're the life blood of what we do.”
Churchill representatives are scheduled to tour the property Thursday to get an idea of immediate renovation needs, including short- and long-term needs for the barn area and racetrack surfaces. Flannery said CDI will work with surfaces expert Dr. Mick Peterson to ensure the condition of the existing Polytrack and to consider the installment of an inner dirt track. In response to questions from commissioners, Flannery said the organization was undecided whether it would card races on dirt, or whether the Jeff Ruby Steaks could be moved back to dirt. If an inner dirt track is installed, it is estimated to be about seven furlongs, but first officials must figure out how to best work around the lake currently in the track's infield.
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