Kentucky Downs smashed its handle record for the sixth straight year, with a total of $36,421,722 wagered on the five-date meet. All-sources betting of $7,021,553 on Thursday was a record for the closing card.
The total tops by 20 percent last year's $30,246,888. Consider that Kentucky Downs set a betting record in 2013 of $12,814,891. That number has almost tripled in the intervening five years.
“Hats off to Kentucky Downs,” said Mike Maker, who won his fourth straight track trainer's title. “They've done a fabulous job.”
Maker won his latest crown by a 9-4 margin in wins over Mark Casse. Ken and Sarah Ramsey, one of his major clients, earned their seventh straight owner's title and ninth overall with three wins, besting the two apiece for Three Diamonds Farm, Calumet Farm, DARRS Inc. and Woodford Racing Inc. Maker also trains for Three Diamonds. Jose Ortiz, riding frequently for Maker, the Ramseys and Three Diamonds, earned his first Kentucky Downs riding title nine wins to seven over 2017 champion Julien Leparoux.
Kentucky Downs registered its highest betting day ever when $10,039,008 was wagered on Saturday, Sept. 8. It also recorded its third-highest ever when $7,313,857 was bet this past Wednesday on the card postponed from Sunday after significant rain hit the region.
Kentucky Downs doesn't charge admission, but the eyeball test suggested crowds were the highest ever. For the first time, the Finish Line Pavilion — which was expanded and upgraded from when it was the Finish Line Tent — sold out all five days, including the two Thursdays.
“The meet was fabulous on just about all fronts,” said Ted Nicholson, senior vice president and general manager of Kentucky Downs. “Even the negative from having to cancel this past Sunday because of the downpour soaking the area turned into a great day of racing on Wednesday. Every year we go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how we can do better, how can we accommodate even more of our guests, especially from out of town. This year it was the Finish Line Pavilion. Who knows what it will be next year? Clearly there is high demand for open-air dining near the finish line. It's a great problem to have.
“We have twin missions that we take very seriously: to take care of our on-track guests who create our unique atmosphere and also those wagering on our races through simulcast and online outlets. Obviously the majority of our handle of $36 million was bet offsite. It's a testament to all those horseplayers who love outstanding turf racing, full fields and great betting value with our low takeout on wagers. We're excited to see what 2019 will bring.”
A record $10,233,665.60 was paid out to horsemen in purses and Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund monies, up from the then-record $8,625,396 last year. Even with the unprecedented betting levels, much of the purse money is generated from Kentucky Downs' historical horse racing gaming operation. That purse money doesn't include an additional $2.9 million sent in purses to Ellis Park and $500,000 apiece to Keeneland and Churchill Downs in an agreement with the Kentucky HBPA, which represents owners and tracks at the state's five tracks.
“It's always nice to be part of this,” said jockey Joe Bravo, who usually rides on the East Coast but has become an increasing fixture at Kentucky Downs. “There's so much they do for only the five days of racing. … For a short meet, they've really done a lot with it…. You put up the money and we'll follow. It was fun, and now it's serious. But it is still fun. It's the closest America is going to see to European-style racing… It's a whole adventure coming here. You fly into Nashville, which is a beautiful city. And everybody gears up for here, trying to get the best out of their animals. I love it.”
Kentucky Downs figures to retain its leadership for having America's largest fields at 11.04 horses per race this meet with 552 starters for 50 races, up from last year's nation-leading 10.44 per race. The previous record was the 10.96 horses per race in 2016.
“I have a great time,” said racing fan Ivy Sheppard, a stay-at-home mom from Nashville who came to the track three of the five days. “There's nothing like it. The atmosphere. You feel up close and personal with the horses. You can smell them here. Everybody who works here is just wonderful. I came opening Saturday with my best friend. It was her first time and she just loved it. The fuller races are great. And I've done well betting.”
Ortiz, the reigning Eclipse Award jockey who rode at Kentucky Downs the final four days for the second year, said he hopes to keep the track as part of his circuit after Saratoga and before the big stakes resume at Belmont.
“The track is pretty unique,” he said. “If you're on a nice horse, you've got a huge shot. You can't beat the purses. I really like it. As long as the rain stays away, we're good. But days like today, I love it. I'm going to keep coming here as long as I can. The atmosphere is great. People are here having fun. There are riders from every part of the United States shipping in. It's a nice festival.”
Ortiz won four races last year and said he learned a lot.
“It's great,” he said of the riding title. “I couldn't do it by myself. I have to thank all the trainers and owners for giving me the opportunity. I won for Mike Maker, Bill Mott, Mark Casse – I had a lot of good horsemen giving me good opportunities and I was trying to do the best out of it.
“I had success last year, but this year I came with a plan. I knew what I was doing clearly, and the support of the horsemen to give me good opportunities. I knew what I was doing out there. I knew the timing to move.”
Maker fattened his record as Kentucky Downs' all-time winningest trainer with 51 wins. Wesley Ward, a three-time meet winner, is second all-time at 28 wins.
“The titles are nice, but to me it's second,” Maker said. “It's a chance for the owners to try to turn a profit for the year. It's been huge.”
Ramsey extended his career win total at the track to a record 45 races. Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen presented Ramsey with a bourbon barrel lid painted in the Ramsey silks to commemorate being the all-time leading owner.
Ramsey had to sweat out Calumet Farm potentially trying or passing him. Ramsey scratched Daring Duchess out of Thursday's featured $400,000 Ramsey Farm Stakes, which he sponsors, because his grandson, Nolan Ramsey, wanted to run her in a stakes at Woodbine, where he is Mike Maker's assistant.
“I didn't have a horse running in the big race today, and I began to regret it,” Ken Ramsey said. “Because they were sniffing right at my heels. And we didn't win one today, just barely hung on. So next year, I'll have more numbers down here. I know it can be tough to get in races down here. But I won't leave any at Woodbine that we think can win down here. Promise. But I had my cake and was able to eat it, too. We're leaving Nolan with two horses he thinks can win up there at Woodbine, and we'll see how it works out. The sacrifice was not in vain, because we pulled it off anyway.”
Country Chick, who trains on 72-year-old trainer and owner Floyd Cobb's farm outside of Lexington, returned the highest win price in North America this year in taking an allowance race at 123-1 odds Wednesday, resulting on payoffs of $248.60.
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