Frustrations bubbled up at Tuesday's meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission as Turfway Park officials revealed yet another delay in plans to overhaul the facility. Earlier this year, general manager Chip Bach revealed plans to the commissions for a $25 million renovation to the grandstand, which was built in the 1950s. Engineers encountered structural issues with the property which also needed to be addressed as part of any ongoing construction. Then, on Tuesday, Bach informed the commission the major renovations had been pushed back in favor of a Phase 1 project which would install 250 historical horse racing machines and give the grandstand a new coat of paint and new awnings.
Bach, who did not have an estimated cost for the project or details on what type of historical horse racing machines would be installed, said he expected it would be completed in June, pending the appropriate permits. Bach stressed Turfway Park owner JACK Casino was in a hurry to get the machines installed “as soon as possible” after seeing successful results from historical horse racing at other Kentucky facilities.
Commission vice chairman Mark Simendinger reacted to the update with exasperation, pointing out the track's license for historical horse racing was awarded three years ago, and yet the machines have yet to be installed — or even purchased.
“This project will be the single most meticulously planned project since the pyramids,” said Simendinger, who opined that Turfway Park's grandstand should really be a teardown rather than a renovation project. “We're told this is going to happen. Now we're told the machines — which were approved, literally under a previous administration — we're told 'Now, we're going to hurry up.' Hurry up? You can't slow it down any more than you're slowing it down. I just don't get it.
“It puts me in a bad position as a commissioner because I want to support Kentucky racing and I want to support Turfway Park and god knows it needs help right now. That's all well and good, but let's just face facts. The facts, the way I see them, is Turfway Park is being held hostage by a casino across the river in Cincinnati [where JACK has a casino property]. Whether anyone here wants to admit it or not, that's a fact. The only reason we haven't gone forward with renovating Turfway Park and doing this project the right way is that they want to protect their flank from the casino that's already over there. They don't want to do any business at Turfway, and you know who suffers because of that? The horsemen suffer because of that. The people who want to bet on horses suffer because of that, and it's not right.
“You have to make a decision,” Simendinger continued, looking at Bach. “You're either in, as part of Kentucky racing, or you're out. And that's ok. Being out's ok. Just let someone else come in and do it. And I'll tell you what — if you're wondering who that's going to be, we had two people here that did not get a license at Oak Grove that I imagine would be very happy to do things the right way up there…it's just driving me crazy. I can't take it anymore.”
Other commissioners chimed in, agreeing with Simendinger's outlook and questioning whether the commission could or should revoke Turfway's license for historical horse racing, or even its racing license, to send a message to JACK Casino that the group is losing faith in the company's intentions. According to chairman Frank Kling, the historical horse racing license had been issued without conditions at the time; all subsequent licenses have been given with conditions attached.
Multiple commissioners expressed their sympathy with Bach, who they understood to be the messenger between Turfway Park owner JACK Casino and the racing world.
“We're feeling pigeon-holed,” said commissioner Larry Bisig, looking at Bach. “Maybe you are, too. Maybe that type of message, that you're in danger of losing this state, would be effective.”
Ultimately, the commission requested Bach return at the next regularly-scheduled meeting with more details on the proposed project, at which time commissioners expected to discuss the status of the facility's license.
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