Kentucky Downs can be described in one word – unique. The thoroughbred track on the Tennessee state line only races for seven days out of the year, and it’s neither an oval nor flat. Oh, and it’s turf only.
Buoyed by historical horse racing machines, the Kentucky horse racing track offers some of the most lucrative purses in the U.S., and that’s helped generate some of the deepest fields in the sport. It’s also attracted horses from across the country, Canada, England, France and elsewhere across the world. That, in turn, has spurred betting interest to record levels.
“It used to be kind of a quirky, novelty track, and there were some people who wouldn’t run here,” Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said. “Now everybody is coming. All the jockeys are here, all the trainers, the big outfits. It exemplifies what’s going right with Kentucky racing.”
The FanDuel Sportsbook Kentucky Meet at Kentucky Downs concluded last Wednesday, and the all-sources handle for the 76 races was $83.6 million, up more than 4% from the previous record of $80.2 million set last year. That increase comes even as wagering on horse racing in the U.S. is down more than 4% for the year through August. It also comes after the track increased the takeout rate on its parimutuel pools to accommodate for higher operating costs due to the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. While the track’s takeout rate remains lower than many tracks, some horse players still criticized the move.
Meet The Owners of Kentucky Downs
The track is owned by Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone. Winchell is a prominent horseman himself – Epicenter nearly won his Winchell Thoroughbreds its first Triple Crown race last year. Falcone is a longtime gaming executive who previously worked as a CFO for Sightline Payments, Red Rock Resorts and Station Casinos.
Since taking over the track four years ago, Winchell and Falcone have invested substantially in the property that’s a half-hour north of Nashville. Much of that can be seen through developments at the track. A SpringHill Suites hotel recently opened, as did an events center next to The Mint, the track’s historical horse racing gaming hall. They’ve also opened a satellite HHR facility in Bowling Green.
The investments haven’t stopped there. Ted Nicholson, the track’s vice president for racing, said the owners have encouraged out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to showcasing racing. Among the trophies given to owners for winning races include specially designed bottles of bourbon and guitar trophies signed by top country music artists.
“We put a premium on creating a memorable experience for our guests, horsemen and our sponsors,” Nicholson said. “Horse owners put on the show. We want to show our recognition and appreciation for that with our hospitality.”
Kentucky Downs And Sports Betting
Given its status as a licensed horse racing track, Kentucky Downs was eligible to apply for a sports betting license. It raised a few eyebrows when the Franklin track wasn’t on the list of applicants released last month.
Kentucky Downs is still participating in Kentucky sports betting. It’s the majority owner of Cumberland Run, a harness track set to officially open next month in Corbin. It already has a few HHR machines open at the track, and its own satellite in Williamsburg has about 450 machines. John Wholihan, the director of marketing for Kentucky Downs and The Mint, told BetKentucky.com that both of those facilities have DraftKings kiosks on site. Both DraftKings and Circa Sports have partnerships with Cumberland Run that will allow them to operate Kentucky sports betting apps when mobile wagering is allowed. That begins next week, although operators may wait until after Sept. 28 when Kentucky betting apps launch.
Our analysis of Kentucky Downs sports betting is this: Give it time. The Mint HHR facility at the Franklin track is one of the largest in the state – the $1.79 billion in handle it reported for the 2022-23 fiscal year represented about 22% of the overall handle across the state. Given the investments and improvements made, Winchell and Falcone intend to make it a destination. They likely won’t stand pat.
It’s a no-brainer that a track like Kentucky Downs will eventually get involved in sports betting. Given its proximity to Nashville, it would make an ideal location for a major retail sportsbook – perhaps from an operator not licensed in Tennessee. When Kentucky Downs makes its move into sports betting, odds are it’ll be noteworthy.