A UNIQUE TRACK
“Unique” is a word that get tossed around a lot by writers too lazy-minded to come up with a better description, but as pari-mutual Thoroughbred racetracks go, Kentucky Downs is…well…truly unique.
It encompasses almost 270 acres adjacent to Interstate 65 in Simpson County, Kentucky, just north of the Tennessee border. Kentucky Downs does not have a dirt oval. It does not have an infield tote board. There is no grandstand there, just some bleacher seats. The place does have a clubhouse, a two-story brick structure that sits three-quarters of the way up the streatch. For clubhouse patrons who go out on the verabda to watch the horses run, binoculars come in handy – telescopes even more so.
BY BILL MOONEY
PHOTOGRAGHS BY SUZIE PICOU-OLDHAM
All live racing occurs over a turf course at Kentucky Downs. It is 1 5/16 miles in length and covers 19 acres. Its shape is simi-lar to that of a one-scoop ice cream cone, with an exception-ally sharp turn on its right-hand side and a huge, sweeping turn on the left. Kentucky Downs conducted six days of live racing this year: September 15, 17 and 18, and September 22, 24 and 25. “Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, Monday, Tues-day,” said Ryan Driscoll, the track’s 38-year-old general manager. “We had mothers pushing strollers, fathers carrying picnic cool-ers and people of varying ages bringing portable barbecue grills onto the grounds. It was great fun.”
Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race-track Industry Program. He previously worked at Louisiana Downs, and has been at Kentucky Downs since late December, 2001. The track simulcasts races year-round, and in 2006 its all-sources handle totaled slightly above $34.7 million. Kentucky Downs isn’t Santa Anita. But, then, Santa Anita isn’t Kentucky Downs.
“I don’t have a half-dozen vice presidents I can lean on,” said Driscoll, who lives in a company-owned house next to the one-mile pole. “On a typical day, I’ll find myself fixing a toilet in one of the track’s restrooms and writing a $100,000 check.”
During the late summer of 2005, Kentucky Downs got hit by a major storm, followed by the remnants of both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. “On the turn that borders our in-field lake, the inside rail was under water and we had bluegills swimming on the four-path of the turf course,” Driscoll said. “We used two diesel pumps operating 24 hours a day for seven days to get rid of the water.”
Kentucky Downs has been conducting racing since 1990. In March of this year, an 85% controlling interest in the place was purchased by a group headed by Corey Johnsen and Ray Reid. Johnsen’s resume includes lengthy administrative tenures at Louisiana Downs, Remington Park and Lone Star Park. Reid is an investment banker from South Lake, Texas, and a Thorough-bred owner and breeder.
A five-percent share in Kentucky Downs has been retained by its formal principal owner, Kelley Farms Racing. Churchill Downs has retained a five-percent share, as has Turfway Park.
And since 50% of Turfway is owned by Keeneland, the Lexington track still has a 2 ½% stake in a place that offers racing, if not the way it was meant to be, at least something akin to the way it used to be, a century or more ago.
When Kentucky Downs initially began conducting race meets 17 years ago, it was called “Dueling Grounds.” A bit of heritage was involved honest-to-goodness duels, complete with flintlock pistols and balls, used to be conducted on the site. One that occurred on September 26, 1826, involved Sam Houston, who at the time was serving his second term as a United States congressman representing the state of Tennessee. This was before Houston became Tennessee’s governor, and before he defeated Santa Anna’s army at the Battle of San Jacinto, and before he became the governor of Texas.
In Houston’s day, dueling was illegal in Tennessee, but not in Kentucky. So, all prospective combatants from Tennessee had to do was cross the state line and they were free to clash swords and shoot each other full of holes. Houston was 33 years old at the time, and he had got into a political squabble with a Nash
ville attorney named William White regarding the candidates each man was championing to become the next local postmas-ter. Their differing opinions led to arguments, the arguments led to publicly-voiced insults, and Houston and White agreed the best way to settle the dispute was with pistols fired 15 paces apart.
What eventually became Dueling Grounds/Kentucky Downs was then known as “Linkumpinch,” a name whose origins defy modern-day research. It was owned by Sanford Duncan, who was also proprietor of a nearby overnight stage coach stop. What Duncan’s feelings were concerning the duels that were fought on his property are also subject to speculation. Might he have charged a fee? And, if he did, was it payable before the duel took place (in case the combatants both knocked each other off )?
Witnesses to the duel said that Houston and White fired si-multaneously. White missed. Houston didn’t. White survived, but it took him several months to recover from his wound. Houston was later quoted as saying, “My only gratification is that my adversary was injured no worse.”
As a racetrack, Kentucky Downs has gone through sev-eral ownerships. Bradley “Mike” Shannon is recognized as the track’s founder he’s the same Bradley Shannon who, under a lease agreement, campaigned North America’s 1986 male turf champion, Manila.
But, in 1994, Shannon got involved in Kentucky’s “Bobtrot” scandal, which involved a bevy of the state’s political figures, all of whom proceeded to point fingers of blame at each other. No duels were fought (they had been outlawed in Kentucky, too, by this time). But Shannon pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, and he sold his interest in the track to H. Earl Sinks, a Nashville music industry veteran who performed under the name, “Snake Eyes.”
Snake Eyes wasn’t much good at singing. Or at playing an in-strument. And he was even less competent running a racetrack. In 1996, Dueling Grounds went bankrupt. A group headed by Brad Kelley, a tobacco, coal and real estate magnate from Bowl-ing Green, Kentucky, purchased the track. Churchill and Turfway subsequently became partners, the place was (regrettably) renamed Kentucky Downs, and now there’s the present-day ownership situation, which includes Corey Johnsen’s group.
The Kentucky Downs backside has stalls for only 260 horses. But the race fields there are surprisingly large. They averaged 10.4 horses per race in 2004, 9.3 horses per race in ‘05 and 9.1 per race in ‘06. During those same three years, the average purse distribution per day was $238,200, which further broke down to an average of $31,902 per race.
Truth be known, “very few of our stalls are used by horse-men for overnight stabling,” said Driscoll. “Churchill’s about a 2 ½-hour van ride from here; Keeneland’s a little less than three hours away. Most Kentucky trainers ship in and out of Kentucky Downs on a daily basis.”
They come from points further, as well. Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard ships in and out from his home base in Unionville, Pennsylvania. That may seem odd, perhaps, but the long-distance commute has paid dividends. Sheppard has run a gelding named Rochester each of the past five years in Kentucky Downs’ richest event, the Grade 3, $200,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Handicap.
The distance of the event is 1 ½ miles, and Rochester has be-come something of a Kentucky Downs legend. He won the race at 11-1 odds in 2002, won again (via disqualification) in 2003, finished second in 2004, second in 2005 and third in 2006. And, in all five of those years, he made his next start in Keeneland’s Sycamore Breeders’ Cup, winning twice and placing once.
Silverfoot, a Dallas Stewart trainee, was a 6 ¾-length winner of the Kentucky Cup Turf Handicap in ‘05. He was ridden by Rafael Bejarano, who the prior year set a Kentucky Downs re-cord that may never be equaled or broken–six wins on a single card. The date was September 21 of ‘04. There were eight races that day, and in the two that Bejarano didn’t win, he finished second and third.
In ‘06, the Kentucky Cup Turf Handicap was won by a Niall O’Callaghan trainee, the Irish-bred Embossed, who, with Larry Melancon in the irons, prevailed in a photo over Lord Carmen, who was ridden by Calvin Borel. At no call in the race did Em-bossed trail by more than a half-length; and at no point did he lead by more than a head an extremely unusual circumstance for a 12-furlong race. His winning margin was a nose, and at odds of nearly 35-1. Embossed was the longest shot in the field of nine. He put on a show.
Of course, as is the case at any track, there have been hap-penings that weren’t so illustrious. Back in 1991, there was a 2 ¼-mile steeplechase at Kentucky Downs (which was then Duel-ing Grounds) that lured seven horses. One of them took a tumble at the first fence. Another fell at the seventh fence. And two more fell at the last fence.
That left three competitors to finish the race, and the winner was a horse named Made Noble, bred and owned by Virginia Kraft Payson. The purse was $50,000, and Mrs. Payson (though she really didn’t need the money) became a shade wealthier because Made Noble stayed on his feet.
What’s the most bizarre thing Driscoll has seen at Kentucky Downs? “It didn’t happen when we were racing, it happened one night when we were simulcasting,” he said. “A lady broke her foot, but declined all offers of medical attention. She sat weeping for three hours as she waited to bet on a horse in the last race at Penn National.”
Kentucky Downs is not licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. That’s because Simpson is a dry county, but members of the Kentucky Downs Turf Club “can brown bag it,” Driscoll said, and six packs of beer can be purchased just two miles down I-65, as soon as one crosses the state line into Tennessee.
The nearest city to Kentucky Downs is Franklin, Kentucky. “They have a weekly newspaper there, the Franklin Favorite,” said Driscoll. “When I initially came here, the first edition of the paper I saw had a picture on the front page of a guy holding a water moccasin he had caught.”
Yes, but – aha! – Franklin, besides having poisonous snakes, is wet. Franklin is taking steps to annex the Kentucky Downs property into its city limits. When this happens, recently passed legislation will allow Kentucky Downs to start selling beer, wine and booze in general.
Nashville, only 40 miles to the south, has a big population, and a liquor license would allow Kentucky Downs to become much more of an entertainment destination point. It might even expand its facilities and conduct significantly more live racing“. Spend $20-million or so, and we could put in a dirt oval, a grandstand and construct stalls for 800 horses,” Driscoll said. “My inclination is that we could make a race meet work during the winter. We could fill a void left by Turfway, if that track is ever sold and its property gets developed.”
Slot machines are not legal in Kentucky, although the racing industry has been trying for the past decade to get them at the tracks. The effort has been loud and painfully amateurish, from a political standpoint, but hope springs eternal. “We’d put in as many slots as the legislature would let us,” said Driscoll. “But there are other ways to grow.”
Bill Mooney is an Eclipse Award winning freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky