The thoroughbreds that race at Kentucky Downs move quickly as they gallop around the uniquely shaped European-style turf track. Talking with Director of Marketing John Wholihan, it sounds as though those working at Kentucky Downs have been doing a lot of racing around at top speed as well.
The track is readying to host its annual race meet, with the first day of races happening Labor Day, Sept. 7.
Coinciding with that event will be the unveiling of a renovated, 30,000-square-foot expansion to the property’s gaming space, the newly-named Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs.
There’s still work to be done, says Wholihan. But it appears the team has jockeyed themselves into good position for an exciting September, with further plans for Kentucky Downs in the future.
Visitors invited to make some coin at the new Mint Gaming Hall
Kentucky Downs is located in Franklin, KY, a bit north of Nashville and just over the Tennessee border. For most of the year, the action primarily happens indoors where patrons play historical horse racing machines and enjoy simulcast wagering.
Then every September comes the annual race meet. This year’s schedule includes six days’ worth of races (as opposed to the usual five) lasting Sept. 7-16.
Following a three-month spring shutdown due to COVID-19, the facility reopened in June with new safety protocols in place. But expansion plans were already underway, introduced by new owners early last year.
Groundbreaking on the expanded Kentucky Downs gaming hall came in November 2019. After many months of work, the fruits of all that labor will soon be revealed.
“It’s been an interesting summer,” says Wholihan with a chuckle. His understatement becomes more obvious as he catalogs what has been added.
There’s a new 24-seat bar with large screen TVs for watching sports. There is a proper stage where bands and others can perform.
It also features a new high-limit room where the Players Club will be relocated. The number of historical horse racing machines will be increased as well, likely settling between 1,100 and 1,200 when all is said and done.
The new name, Wholihan explains, is meant to evoke both gaming and horse racing at once. “The mint is where they make coin, and it’s an old Vegas name,” he points out. But it is still Kentucky Downs, a name that “stays true to the horse racing roots.”
More machines, variety among historical horse racing games
The additional HHR machines have led some to ask if the new gaming hall will feature other casino games, too. Kentucky gambling law won’t allow that, but visitors will be encountering some new games.
“While we don’t have the Vegas or Tunica-type games or slot machines, we are going to be bringing in some new manufacturers,” says Wholihan.
Up to now, Exacta Systems has been the sole provider of the HHR games for Kentucky Downs. “But there are now a couple of the bigger, traditional slot machine makers from Vegas that are jumping into historical horse racing. That’s exciting.”
For those unfamiliar, historical horse racing games draw on a large database of thousands of previously run races to offer bettors a chance to wager on outcomes. Players can either use the auto-handicap feature or test their own handicapping skills to make selections themselves.
Thus, the games do incorporate a skill element that makes them legal.
As Wholihan points out, players adopt different approaches to the games, much as they choose to play for lower or higher stakes. He also notes how the pari-mutuel nature of the games helps build some big jackpots while also lessening the house’s concern about the payouts.
“Since we’ve reopened, we’ve had a $741,000 jackpot, we had another the other day for $200,000, and we’ve had a $115,000 one. We’ve had some juicy five- and six-figure jackpots, too,” he says.
Since these are pari-mutuel games, the house already has its commission. That helps those running the games join in the customer’s excitement when such big wins come along.
“It’s like the race track. We all bet and the track doesn’t care if the big longshot comes in,” says Wholihan.
More renovations to come, and ongoing safety protocols
Wholihan says they’re aiming to have 1,100 machines operating by the start of September. That’s a total that would more than double what they’ve had in the past. That said, between further renovations and social distancing restrictions, the total could fluctuate as they go.
Speaking of ongoing renovations, work will be continuing after the start of September at Kentucky Downs. Throughout the rest of 2020, the existing 80,000-square-foot building will also be redone. Along with introducing various improvements and matching the new color scheme, additional food options will be coming as well.
Looking a bit further down the road, there are plans to build a hotel on the premises. That would be later 2021 or 2022, says Wholihan, as there’s a lot else to take care of first.
Meanwhile, COVID-related protocols will continue to affect the arrangement of the gaming space.
“We actually reconfigured our floor,” says Wholihan, noting how they couldn’t simply shut down every other machine to ensure proper social distancing. “No matter where you sit, you turn to your left or right and you’re six feet apart… we’re very stringent on following the rules,” he says.
They have also explored using plexiglass and putting in dividers with spacers to ensure distancing. Other measures include:
- Temperature checks
- Hand sanitizer stations
- Enhanced air filtration
- Additional cleaning
“We have lots of cash machines, too, so people don’t have to wait in lines to cash out,” says Wholihan. “We’ve adapted, and technology has helped.”
Huge purses once again at Kentucky Downs race meet
While tickets are being sold for the upcoming races, there will be limits there as well with restrictions on crowds and seating.
The Sept. 7 start was picked to avoid conflict with the rescheduled Kentucky Derby, which will take place at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday, Sept. 5.
The race meet at Kentucky Downs is a huge event. There is $2 million a day in purse money, including some $400,000 races and a marquee $1 million race.
TVG will broadcast races live as well. That will help draw more eyes to the picturesque location and its wide, kidney-shaped turf track.
“We’ve had a nice mix of rain and sunshine,” says Wholihan, referring to yet another area of maintenance currently being attended to at Kentucky Downs. “We’ve got good grass that gives a good cushion, and that makes it safe for the horses. All I can say is, you don’t want to lose your golf ball in there!”
As if there were any time to pitch and putt!