With record purses attracting full fields and low takeout sparking interest from horseplayers, Kentucky Downs closed its five-date boutique meet Sept. 15 with total wagering up nearly 34 percent.
Betting on the closing-day card of $3,660,588 brought all-sources handle to $22,540,761.22 for an average of $4,508,152 a day. Already a record after Sunday's card, the final numbers reflect an increase of 33.92 percent over last year's previous record total of $16,831,333.
"It's gratifying. We've had this vision since 2007 to be a meaningful presence in the Thoroughbred racing world," said Kentucky Downs president Corey Johnsen, who with Ray Reid and partners bought the track that year. "Because everybody in the industry has worked together, we're able to accomplish that. What's even more exciting is that there's still more room to grow."
On-track handle totaled $929,409, a 48 percent increase over last year's $628,145 total.
Overnight purses, stakes, and Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund monies totaled $7,885,979 for an average of $1,577,195 a day, up 19 percent over 2015, when the total figure was $6,609,354.70 for an average of $1,321.870 in 2015.
A total of 548 horses ran at the meet, for an average of 10.96 per race, best in the country and an increase from last year's 10.60.
"Record handle again? Why am I not surprised?" said Jeff Platt, president of the Horseplayers Association of North America, which has rated Kentucky Downs the top track for betting the past two years. "Horseplayers buy value and Kentucky Downs had it in spades."
Kentucky Downs' takeout for exactas, America's most popular multi-horse bet, at 18.25% is among the lowest in the country.
Trainer Mike Maker, owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, and jockey Florent Geroux teamed to cap their meet championships by winning the closing-day $350,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Marathon with Al's Gal.
Maker had a record-setting meet while taking his third straight trainer's title. His eight victories accounted for 16 percent of the meet's 50 races. That included taking five of 12 stakes, capped by Da Big Hoss becoming only the second horse to win the $600,000 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup twice.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey of Nicholasville, Ky., captured their fourth straight title with six victories overall. Geroux earned his second straight riding title with 12 wins, matching his 2015 total.
Fans also came from all over to America's only European-style course whose atmosphere Johnsen has dubbed "combination of Kentucky county fair and Royal Ascot."
"This is a little anecdotal, but I have never heard so many people who traveled from all over North America to see our races," said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs' senior vice president and general manager. "I mean, from California, Florida, Maryland. I can't tell you how many people said they had heard about Kentucky Downs and wanted to see it in person. Everyone on our staff ran into people who had traveled thousands of miles to get here."
It was an action away from Kentucky Downs that resonated with Ramsey, who noted that Kentucky Downs' $130,000 maiden races and $140,000 and $145,000 allowance races could have been even higher. Instead, Kentucky Downs contributed $1.35 million to Ellis Park's purse account, catapulting its sister track in Henderson to one of its most successful meets ever.
"I was really pleased what they did for the industry, helping out Ellis Park instead of keeping it in their own left hip pocket," Ramsey said. "They took money out of their own till and put it over there. They didn't have to do that. There's nothing in the rule book that says you have to help a competitor, but it helps the Kentucky circuit."
In fact, 17 winners (34 percent) made their prior start at Ellis.
"That's just wonderful. That just shows the quality of the Ellis Park horses has improved, because obviously the quality of Kentucky Downs, with its purses, has improved immensely," said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "That's what we and Corey were working for when we re-channeled that money to Ellis: to try to once again re-establish a circuit.
"I have heard nothing but favorable comments from the horsemen about, of course, the purse money, but even more importantly the safety of the racetrack. They continue to make improvements down there that make it a really great experience for the racing fan."
Indeed, Kentucky Downs prides itself on innovation, including the first experiment with GoPro HEROCast -- used to provide fans an unprecedented, 360-degree insider's look into the action on the racetrack. "This was the first step in introducing it to horse racing on a commercial basis," Johnsen said, noting all 32 NHL rinks will have HEROCasts this hockey season.
The track also started live streaming and enhanced its social media. It began using a micro-bacterial fog to use on the receiving-barn stalls between occupants to kill all bacteria. The track started working with a new product to reduce dust in the stable area.
"One of our goals is to be on the cutting edge of innovation in our industry," Johnsen said. "We have an advantage because we race only five days and we can be like a laboratory, do things and hopefully other tracks carry on. I think the best example is takeout. We led the way and now a number of tracks have lowered takeout.
"We understand that you can always improve your product. We made a number of improvements here, and we are committed to continuing to improve and continuing to innovate."
Kentucky Downs' total daily handle and daily starters, by race date
Sept. 3 (Saturday) $4,603,239.82 113
Sept. 8 (Thursday) $4,019,637.14 111
Sept. 10 (Saturday) $5,769,505.23 110
Sept. 11 (Sunday) $4,487,790.40 114
Sept. 15 (Thursday) $3,660,588.63 110