New NKY race horse track threatens Turfway Future

New NKY race horse track threatens Turfway Future
Rendering of the New Latonia Racing & Gaming Churchill Downs hopes to build in Northern Kentucky. (Source: Enquirer/Churchill Downs)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CINCINNATI ENQUIRER) - The host of the Kentucky Derby wants to put a racetrack in Northern Kentucky.

On Thursday, Churchill Downs announced its plans to build a new training facility in Northern Kentucky. The facility would also hold a winter thoroughbred meet in 2020.

First, Churchill Downs needs the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to give them the winter dates - the same winter dates coveted by Florence's Turfway Park.

Turfway Park has historically been given the winter racing dates. It turns out, the park told regulators and Kentucky leaders it planned to invest over $100 million improving the track, according to a release from JACK Entertainment, the current owner of the track.

The maneuver to take the dates did not sit well with JACK Entertainment officials.

“We are shocked and thoroughly disappointed by Churchill Downs’ recent attack on Turfway Park, which has been a significant part of the Northern Kentucky community for over 60 years,” said Mark Dunkeson, Chief Executive Officer of JACK Entertainment in a statement.

"JACK Entertainment and Hard Rock International will jointly defend the long-standing race dates that have regularly been awarded to Turfway Park and contest the inappropriate actions of Churchill Downs and their attempt to disrupt the Northern Kentucky racing community."

Turfway Park wants to add historic racing machines, build race purses and other enhancements for the park, the statement said.

Churchill Downs hopes to get the 2020 winter racing dates and hold the competitions in Louisville until the new track is complete.

But Dunkeson said that would only benefit Churchill Downs and would “restrict competition,” within the Kentucky racing market for “their own financial gain by interfering with the Turfway sale and blocking the Turfway enhancements.”

Local leaders more excited

Churchill Downs' announcement Thursday was met with excitement from local leaders, omitted exactly where in Northern Kentucky the $200 million track would be.

The name of the proposed track, New Latonia Racing & Gaming, is likely more of an homage to local history than a clue to where the races could take place.

Covington spokesperson Dan Hassert said no city officials had been approached about the racetrack going in Latonia, a neighborhood that sits in the south end of the city.

The original Latonia Racecourse held races from 1883 to 1939 at a spot adjacent to 38th Street and Winchester Avenue, according to the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky. For decades, Latonia was a leading thoroughbred horse racing facility in North America.

“I haven’t found anybody at the City this morning who’s been approached about a $200 million track and training facility coming here," said Hassert. "But – given the history of the old Latonia Racecourse in Covington – what an exciting possibility THAT would be. How much land do they need?”

Churchill Downs media representative Steve Bryant told The Enquirer in an email that location details aren’t available yet.

Well, what about Turfway in Florence?

Turfway Park is the existing horse racing track in Northern Kentucky just north of Florence.

"Thoroughbred racing belongs in Florence Kentucky and I don’t want to see that change," said Florence Mayor Diane Whalen. She hopes the new owners get a chance to prove that they can do just that.

In April, Hard Rock International purchased Turfway in a $780 million deal that also purchased Jack Cincinnati Casino.

Churchill Downs said in its release it plans to request the dates for the 2020 racing season that the Turfway currently has. Turfway officials didn't immediately offer comment on Churchill's plans.

"Obviously there's going to be a struggle between Turfway and Churchill," said state Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger.

The dates are essential. Just because someone builds a track doesn't mean they get to race horses, Koenig explained.

Churchill Downs will likely build a new facility only if it gets the dates, Koenig said.

“Horse racing has a long storied history in Northern Kentucky and is a strong economic driver for our region. This is a regulatory matter before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission," said Brent Cooper, president and CEO for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "We have confidence the regulators will make the best decision for Northern Kentucky. NKY’s economy is clearly on the fast track, which is why there is so much interest.”

Changes to the Turfway property could be coming unrelated to the track, according to a Boone County Planning Commission meeting agenda.

An engineering firm, the Kleingers Group, applied for a zoning change for the Turfway Park owners. The application asked to change about 17 acres of the northwest end of the property to be zoned for industrial use.

The land is vacant and is not used for racing. The applicant hoped to build a warehouse there, according to county zoning staff member Michael Schwartz.

The request was tabled for six months at the June 5 commission meeting.

What could new track mean for Northern Kentucky?

Horse owner and racetrack enthusiast Burr Travis said a new track could make Northern Kentucky competitive with the rest of the Kentucky racing world.

The new track could attract new customers if it incorporates what Travis calls "historic racing," which includes slot machines. Travis added that that Turfway does not have historic racing.

“In the long run, it’s going to be a great thing for Northern Kentucky,” Travis said.

What we know

  • The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission needs to approve the winter dates that Turfway has but Churchill Downs wants. 
  • The project could create 400 full- and part-time jobs as well as 800 construction jobs.
  • The construction plans include a hotel attached to the facility.

What we don’t know

  • Where exactly the new racetrack will be. It could use an existing track or be built from scratch.
  • What kind of government permits a new track would have to obtain.
  • How long construction would take. 

Copyright 2019 Cincinnati Enquirer. All rights reserved.