With its uniqueness in the United States as a turf-only facility with a European-modeled course—along with unparalleled $130,000 maiden races and allowance events of $140,000-$145,000—Kentucky Downs has become a destination with its short, five-program meet.
Horsemen are flooding the entry boxes of the Franklin, Ky. track, so much so that 53 horses were entered into the meet's first maiden race, an event for 2-year-old fillies. Opening day was scheduled for Sept. 2, but was postponed to Sept. 6 because of heavy rain in the area.
Stakes coordinator Rick Albright said the good part of the meet that runs through Sept. 14, is that there will be "huge fields in every race." On Wednesday, seven of the 10 races have fields of 16 entered, though a maximum of 12 will be permitted to run.
Trainer Mark Casse, routinely a major player at the meet, said he entered five horses for opening day, but only one horse drew in—$350,000 Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies Stakes starter Moonlight Rain. The Point of Entry filly beat males to break her maiden upon debut going six furlongs on turf at Woodbine July 22. A homebred for longtime Casse client Gabe Grossberg, her fortunes may depend on how she takes to a new turf course.
"It's all about who adapts to their surroundings there," Casse said of the demanding uphill course. "It's big and it's wide open," which makes the turf course similar to Woodbine, he said.
"It's a great short meet but it's very difficult to get in," Casse added, suggesting, "Maybe cut the purses just a little" and run more days.
Casse said he has to tell owners anxious to run at the rich meet that there is a good chance they won't draw in.
"We've asked for more dates every year," Albright said.
Average purses for 2017 will total approximately $1.6 million a day, which is up slightly from last year. Even running last will get an owner $750, up from $500 last year.
The purses are enhanced by the instant racing machines of the facility located near the Tennessee border.
Approximately $5 million in upgrades were made to the facilities in the off-season, including new dining and seating areas. There will be new Jumbotron screens in the infield. The back porch will have a glass-enclosed, air-controlled seating area upstairs with a bar and buffet called the "Director's Room" at a cost of $50. That is in addition to the Turf Club Tent, where $50 will get you a seat outside near the back porch with a buffet and access to a bar. There is also seating at the Finish Line Tent with a "casual" buffet at $35 per ticket. There are 200 general admission stadium seating seats. General admission is free and racing fans are invited to bring their own chairs or blankets.
Coming up Sept. 7, Kentucky Downs will raise money for Old Friends, the Thoroughbred retirement facility near Georgetown, Ky. Kentucky Downs provides a home for eight horses at its facilities through Old Friends. The sponsorships of the races Sept. 7 will be donated to Old Friends, Albright said. The winner of that race's signature race, the $150,000 Old Friends Stakes, will be guaranteed a home at Old Friends after their retirement with all fees paid.
The meet's biggest day will be Sept. 9, when three grade 3 races are run —the $600,000 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup, $350,000 Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint, and the $350,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf.
Michael Maker is seeking a third straight training title, and has horses entered in six of Saturday's races.
"We are going to be very active," he said. "We have horses for the majority of the book."
Maker plans to run grade 3 winner Taghleeb, second in the Aug. 12 American St. Leger Stakes (G3T) at Arlington International Racecourse, in the Sept. 9 Kentucky Turf Cup. Maker also has a number of 2-year-olds he is looking to run, including Queen's Fate, an unraced Canadian-bred daughter of Artie Schiller .
"She is showing a lot of talent," Maker said.
Another 2-year-old who could debut for Maker at the meet is Track Rose, a Calumet Farm-owned daughter of Oxbow out of the Storm Cat mare Jewel for a King. Jewel for a King is out of Jewel Princess, the champion older mare in 1996.
Trainer Ken McPeek has entered his top 3-year-old filly Daddys Lil Darling for the $200,000 Dueling Ground Oaks going 1 5/16 miles Sept. 10. The Scat Daddy filly, who was second in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) to Abel Tasman, has since alternated between turf and dirt starts, most recently finishing fifth in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) at Saratoga Race Course. Prior to that, she finished 2 1/4 lengths behind New Money Honey in the July 8 Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes (G1T).
"She's doing great," McPeek said.
With takeout rates lower than most tracks in the country and large fields, Kentucky Downs has been ranked as the No. 1 track for bettors by the Horseplayers Association of North America.
This meet will also feature the introduction of a new set of wagers called the "Jockey 7." The Jockey 7 begins with Race 4, though it will be posted as Race 11 on the betting menu. Bettors will have the opportunity to guess the jockey that will score the most points in a variety of wagers.
"It's a good way to spend a little money for a lot of racing," Albright said.