By Jeff Noble, Staff Writer
Keeneland’s hoping to make a success in southeastern Kentucky, and they’re hedging their bets that a quarter horse racetrack in the Tri-County will be a winning showplace.
The association that runs the Lexington-based thoroughbred horse racing track and auction sales company confirmed Friday they will build a quarter horse track near Corbin.
The track will be operated as a joint venture between Keeneland and Full House Resorts of Nevada. The two will buy the Thunder Ridge harness racing track in Prestonsburg and move it to the Corbin area.
While he did not discuss specifics, Keeneland Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer Vince Gabbert did confirm Friday morning a couple of locations south of Corbin along the I-75 corridor were being considered.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for some time, and we feel like it’s time to announce it. We are looking at land in the Corbin area, and we think we know what we want. We have to look at infrastructure, traffic, location and other variables. We need a significant piece of land, but we want room to expand with other amenities,” Gabbert said in a telephone interview from Lexington.
A definite date for when the property will be purchased, when the building of the track will start, or when the track will open wasn’t announced. Gabbert said the paperwork was filed on the ownership change with the state Horse Racing Commission, which would also have to approve moving the Prestonsburg track and making it a quarter horse track.
Gabbert noted the facility would be more than just a racetrack.
“We envision a full-scale entertainment venue, with the possibilities endless. It would be a fully modern facility, with room to grow if we need to do so. And we have our name on it. People associate Keeneland with quality, tradition and excellence. The community is very much woven into what we do. With that comes a great amount of responsibility. We want people to take pride in our product the same way we do,” he pointed out.
Gabbert said the track’s ownership and operation would be shared with Keeneland by Full House, which owns six casinos in four states, including one across the Ohio River from Kentucky in Rising Sun, Ind. The facility near Corbin would feature quarter horse racing dates in the summer, which would include top purses on races along with simulcasting and instant racing, also known as historical wagering.
Approved in 2010 by the racing commission, historical wagering was ruled legal by Franklin Circuit Court, but the case was appealed by the Family Foundation of Kentucky, which opposes gambling expansion.
Gabbert noted a bill to approve historical wagering is expected to be filed in Frankfort in the state legislature next week. If the bill is approved, the appeal by the Family Foundation before the state Supreme Court could be a moot point and could be ruled in favor of the track.
The news of the quarter horse track being built in the Corbin area brought optimism from some area officials Friday.
“When I heard the news this morning, I was tickled to death about it. That will definitely be a big boost to our entire area. Wherever they put it, the quarter horse racetrack would benefit all of us economically. And Keeneland puts out a first-rate product. Look at how many people go to Lexington to the races and the horse sales at Keeneland each year. People love the historic track, they love the atmosphere and Keeneland coming here will do the same thing for the Corbin area,” Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney said in a phone interview.
Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White agreed. “People I’m talking to are very excited about the possibility of the track being built, and especially with the Keeneland name. They operate such a nice facility there in Lexington, and have done so for so many years. They’re also excited about the economic benefits the track will bring, with the number of people who drive through our area along I-75. There’s also numerous people who board quarter horses in the region. I think they will see some use in their facilities if the quarter horse racetrack is built.”
“Kentucky is known for horse racing, and having the track in the Tri-County will reap benefits to our region. We could draw from Knoxville and East Tennessee, because they don’t have this kind of entertainment. People from Somerset, Middlesboro, and especially along I-75 and U. S. 25E will drive to see quarter horse racing. They’ll have to build the facility, the stables, the infrastructure and that will bring jobs. Tourist-related industries will benefit, and it’s a win-win situation for this area. I hope they use Knox County, but if they don’t, the Tri-County can all share in the track’s coming to the region and its economic benefits,” said Knox County Judge-Executive J. M. Hall on Friday afternoon.
Gabbert said the track will bring to the region a type of racing not usually associated with this state.
“From a marketing standpoint, we’re looking at quarter horses. We feel like the thoroughbred breed is well-served in Kentucky. We also feel this will serve a need to the quarter horse industry, and to fans of the sport.”
For those involved in racing and raising quarter horses, the news from Keeneland was welcome.
“We have a substantial quarter horse population in Kentucky, but a small amount of quarter horse racing in this state. We had to re-legalize it back in 2004 due to regulations, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to build the sport here. There’s no significant quarter horse racing east of the Mississippi River,” said Rich Wilcke of Henry County, who is also a national racing committee member of the American Quarter Horse Association.
Speaking Friday afternoon by phone, Wilcke stated the quarter horse is the most popular horse breed in the world, and that in a thoroughbred state like Kentucky, there are advantages in breeding.
“The quarter horse can be crossbred by a thoroughbred. One parent can be a thoroughbred and still have a registration number. If you look at the quarter horse segment of racing, you’ll find a lot of thoroughbred blood. So it makes sense in Kentucky.”
He added the building of the track will draw a large population of fans for the sport, with many of them living in this region, and nearby regions.
“People have looked at the Corbin-London area as the last frontier for horse racing in Kentucky. You’ve got the location, you’ve got the regional market, and you’ve got the horses. Looking at the registration numbers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and nearby states, we can confirm there are over 550,000 quarter horses within about 300 miles of Corbin. Those people who own them may not all be racing fans, but they love quarter horses. The name ‘quarter horse’ comes from the horse’s ability to race a quarter of a mile. And if you build it, those fans will come to watch ‘em race.”
“It fits from a marketing standpoint. It takes in an underdeveloped area, like Knoxville and eastern part of Tennessee, as well as areas like the Lake Cumberland region of Kentucky. With the tourism industry already in this part of the state and nearby, it’s a good fit. We’re developing this a a strictly private venture. When we get there, we’ll meet with the local authorities,” Gabbert said.
McBurney is also betting on the benefits of the track. “Quarter horse racing in the West and South is a big industry, and it would be a welcome addition to our region. If they have a sales pavilion there at the new track, think about what that brings to the table, for example. With our location on I-75 and the people coming from that, it’s a domino effect. Motels, restaurants, shopping, gas stations, convenience stores, related industries, everything feeds off that. It’s really exciting news.”
One who can also vouch for the horse industry’s potential is Chuck Givens.
As District 8 Director of the Kentucky Quarter Horse Association, Whitley, Knox and Laurel counties are in his district. He said in a phone interview from Richmond that quarter horses can be found in every county of the state, and added some of them are ready to race.
“I was talking to somebody down in Knox County yesterday who plans on racing quarter horses, but he said to me, ‘We’ve got no place to race.’ Then today, we get this news about Keeneland building a track near Corbin. It will definitely be a boost to the economy, and to our members. They need it.”
SOME FACTS ABOUT THE PLAYERS IN THE QUARTER HORSE RACETRACK TO BE BUILT NEAR CORBIN:
* First, there’s the “mane” attraction, the quarter horse. The number one breed of horse in the United States, the American Quarter Horse is outstanding at sprinting at short distances, and can outdistance other horse breeds in quarter-mile races, which is how the horse got its name. Along with its speed for racing, quarter horses are equally adept for work at ranching, as well as performing in horse shows and rodeos.
* According to the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), American Quarter Horses are compact and heavily muscled, and can run a short distance over a straight stretch faster than any other horse. The quarter mile remains the most popular distance for American Quarter Horse racing, with the best horses going the 400 yards in 21 seconds or less.
* In the 1600s the fastest were called Celebrated American Quarter Running Horses by English colonists. A registry was formed in the 1940 to preserve the breed, and officially became the American Quarter Horse.
* The American Quarter Horse Association is the world’s largest equine breed registry and membership organization, and is headquartered in Amarillo, Texas. AQHA has registered more than 5 million horses since its beginnings in 1940. Amarillo is also the home of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 1991.
* According to the Kentucky Quarter Horse Association, they have quarter horses in all 120 counties of the state. Headquartered in Lexington, the organization’s current President is Paul Coffey of Russell Springs. Along with Coffey, the association has five other officers and 11 persons on its Board of Directors. In addition, eight persons serve as District Directors. Chuck Givens of Richmond serves as director of District 8, made up of Whitley, Knox, Laurel and 28 other counties in southeastern, eastern and central Kentucky.
* One premier racing series is the Bank of America Championship Challenge, which is for 3-year-olds and older with a distance of 400 yards. Among American tracks where the challenge races are held include Sam Houston Park in Houston, Texas; Remington Park in Oklahoma City, Okla.; Sunland Park in Sunland Park, N.M.; Los Alamitos in Cypress, Calif.; Prarie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa; and Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz. Other challenge racing series include the Adequan Derby Challenge and the Zoetis Starter Allowance Challenge.
* For many, the best known quarter horse race (and the world’s richest) is the All American Futurity on Labor Day at Ruidoso Downs in Ruidoso, N.M. Started in 1959, the race for 2-year-olds is the last leg of the AQHA Triple Crown. Last year, the race featured 10 horses with an estimated purse of $2.4 million. The other two AQHA Triple Crown races are the Rainbow Futurity and the Ruidoso Futurity, also run at the New Mexico track. In addition, Ruidoso Downs is home to a companion race, the All American Derby was first run in 1974. Last year, it featured three-year-olds with an estimated purse of $2.3 million. It is run the day before the All American Futurity.
* The Keeneland Association was founded in 1935, with Keeneland’s first race card on Oct. 15, 1936. Two race meetings are held in the spring and fall of the year, in the months of April and October. The spring meeting is highlighted by the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and Central Bank Ashland Stakes, which are Grade 1 Thoroughbred prep races for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. In the fall meeting, nine graded stakes races are held during FallStars Weekend, which serve as a springboard for many Breeders’ Cup horses. Keeneland is also known as the world’s premier Thoroughbred auction house with four annual auctions — the September Yearling and November Breeding Stock Sales, the Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale in April, and the Horses of All Ages auction, held in January. Based in Lexington, the current President/CEO is Bill Thomason, who grew up in London.
* Full House Resorts, Inc operates profitable gaming facilities in five states. The closest facility to Kentucky is across the Ohio River, at Rising Star Casino Resort in Rising Sun, Ind. Formerly the Grand Victoria hotel and riverboat casino, it was bought by Full House Resorts in 2011 for $43 million. Two other casinos are in Santa Fe, N.M., with two in Nevada and one in Mississippi. The company founded in 1992, by former racehorse breeder and founder of Gulfstream Aerospace Allen Paulson. Former Chrysler Corporation Chairman Lee Iacocca has been a major investor since the mid-90’s and is currently Director.
SOURCES: American Quarter Horse Association, Kentucky Quarter Horse Association, Keeneland Association and Full House Resorts, Inc.