by Greg Reinhart, HANA member
In Franklin, Ky., resides Kentucky Downs, home to what the track claims to be the only European-style turf course in the United States. Kentucky Downs features a very short and unique meet, which is treated as a festival by track management and employees. It possesses an excellent takeout with low rakes on win, place, and show wagers (about 16%), as well as a low across-the-board exotic hold (about 19%). In terms of field size, it ranks on the high end as compared to other North American racetracks.
Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen believes that making the on-track experience exciting and fun is a good way to attract new fans.
"I am a big believer in doing anything possible to attract fans to us," Johnsen said. "Providing them with outstanding service through a festival atmosphere is one way we hope to achieve that. Each year we look to improve and find new ways to grow."
Existing handicappers also are a focus, as Johnsen is a handicapper himself. The importance horseplayers place on field size as a part of the interesting handicapping puzzle is not lost on him as a player and track owner.
"We work very hard to get field size up. Our priority initially, and to this day, is our racetrack surface, and we have spent a considerable amount of money to make the surface great," Johnsen noted. "Horseman responded by entering, and our racing office writes excellent races and fills them with deep fields. Our track is safe and consistent and we have promoted that to horsemen."
Another way Johnsen has tried to attract fans to his meet is by bringing back steeplechase races. Two of those races, including a $50,000 stakes, were part of the $500,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Festival on Sept. 13 of last year. To create buzz in the area, as Kentucky Downs is the only track near the major metropolitan area in Nashville, Tenn., and to try and take advantage of the fans who enjoy such racing, out of state fans were brought in by bus to enjoy the event.
"It is a unique event and we wanted to tie it in with Nashville’s interest," Johnsen said. "We look at it as an interesting marketing angle, but also because our track is geared towards being a turf festival. As an additional bonus it also helps us attract more turf horses for flat racing. Several steeplechase trainers bring other horses with them to fill our races. It is a win-win."
Recently the Kentucky Task Force on the Future of Racing recommended that funding of some of the important issues to Kentucky racing be achieved by a slight raise in takeout. Although Johnsen believes the Task Force recommendations are very important, he does not share the view that horseplayers should pay for them.
"I would hope we can find a way for tracks and horsemen to fund them," Johnsen said.
Kentucky Downs seems to be a throwback track with a festival atmosphere with the hope of building a unique brand. For turf racing fans looking for full fields and competitive racing, along with wagering value HANA believes that in 2009 the meet deserves a good long look from horseplayers.
These features led to an overall rating of "B-" for Kentucky Downs and the second spot in HANA’s ratings.
(Editor’s note: The views and rating system are expressly those of the bettors’ advocacy group Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA), and not affiliated with Blood-Horse Publications.)