River Downs has a new name, and its parent company indicated Oct. 23 it won't be one that people forget.
"Part of my goal is to make this the premier racetrack in Ohio and the surrounding area," said Kevin Kaufman general manager of what now is called Belterra Park Gaming & Entertainment Center. "I do like to throw down a challenge."
Pinnacle Entertainment, which is redeveloping the property located along the Ohio River just north of Kentucky into a racetrack gaming facility, also owns Belterra Casino Resort in neighboring Indiana. Company officials said the River Downs name was changed to link the two Belterra properties and what they have to offer.
"Belterra means 'beautiful land,' and this is a beautiful piece of land on the river," Pinnacle chief executive officer Anthony Sanfilippo said during a media event in the current River Downs clubhouse, which serves as a simulcast center for now but will be demolished. "We believe Belterra Park will be the start of what will be a terrific complex."
Pinnacle purchased River Downs for $45 million in late 2010 and operated race meets there in 2011-12. This year's meet was moved to Beulah Park near Columbus because of casino construction and the fact the dirt and turf surfaces were dug up and moved toward the barn area.
The base for the one-mile dirt track is in place, as are rails and furlong poles. The seven-furlong turf course has not yet been planted and probably won't be used until 2015, officials said.
Kaufman, who took over as manager of River Downs when Pinnacle closed on its purchase, worked at Belterra Casino Resort. His father owned racehorses, and Kaufman owns two retired Thoroughbreds.
Kaufman said the plan for 2014, if approved by the Ohio State Racing Commission, is to begin live racing May 8 and conclude the meet Oct. 19. There would be racing four days a week on a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule.
River Downs used to close Labor Day, but with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission having reassigned neighboring Turfway Park's September dates to Churchill Downs, an opportunity opened up in the Cincinnati metropolitan area. River Downs also held short fall meets that began in mid-October through the late 1990s.
Kaufman said it's too soon to discuss what the racing product at Belterra Park will look like, but purses and breed development will get 9% to 11% of the revenue from the 1,600 video lottery terminals expected to go online May 1, 2014.
Unofficial estimates from horsemen indicate average daily purses could eventually reach $200,000 at Belterra Park.
Kaufman said he has spoken to horsemen about having a "special weekend" of open stakes sometime next year. The general manager said Belterra Park could come up with a new signature stakes, return the Cradle Stakes for 2-year-olds to the schedule, or do both depending on revenue.
"I also want to get the Best of Ohio (state-bred championship series) here next fall," Kaufman said. "I think it should rotate (among tracks in the state), but I asked (OSRC executive director) Bill Crawford about it and (I) said, 'I'll hold it every year here if you want me too.' "
Belterra Park will have 1,020 stalls, half of them new, and a 40-stall receiving barn. When turf racing begins, the course will have a Mawsafe Rail, which is developed in Australia and also is being installed at Del Mar, Kaufman said.
When asked about amenities for racing patrons, Sanfilippo said there will be an indoor grandstand area called the "River Downs Club," which will have about 8,000 square feet for year-round simulcast wagering and will double as special-event space. There will be an outdoor pavilion near the paddock, covered stadium seating, and multiple terraces that will overlook the racetrack the entire length of the building.
"A lot of casinos don't take advantage of the views of the racetrack," Sanfilippo said. "Belterra Park will have lots of glass and outdoor terraces where people can look out over the racetrack. There will be plenty of places where people can watch the races. We tried to be very thoughtful (in construction) about where racing fans can enjoy the facility."
Roughly $300 million will be spent on Belterra Park. Pinnacle estimates the facility, which will have six restaurants, could generate about $300 million in economic impact each year.