FRANKLIN – Mason Barnes and Larry Dixon felt like big winners Thursday at Kentucky Downs, and the ponies weren’t even running.
Barnes, the Simpson County judge-executive, and Dixon, the Franklin mayor, were on hand for a groundbreaking ceremony that they see as a sure bet that the horse racing and entertainment venue will continue to provide plenty of horsepower for the local economy.
New Kentucky Downs owners Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone of the Kentucky Racing Acquisition group held the ceremony to kick off a $25 million expansion and renovation of the venue that opened in 1990 as Dueling Grounds Race Course.
The partners, whose purchase of Kentucky Downs was approved by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in February, are planning to add 18,000 square feet to the facility – nearly doubling it – while increasing by 20 percent the track’s current workforce of about 300.
Such numbers conjure up sounds of ringing cash registers for Dixon.
Standing near the backhoes and other heavy equipment that have already started preparing the site, the mayor said: “This is a huge event. This expansion of Kentucky Downs will bring a lot more people to Franklin. I know our downtown shop owners are excited.”
As is Barnes.
“We really appreciate this investment in Franklin and Simpson County,” he said. “Kentucky Downs is probably the largest draw for tourism in Simpson County.”
Visible from Interstate 65 and just a few furlongs from the Tennessee border, Kentucky Downs has become a destination for many in the Nashville area who may come for the live racing on the European-style (all turf) track in the fall, but mostly come for the electronic Historical Horse Racing machines that have fueled the venue’s growth in recent years.
Since the introduction of the HHR machines, betting on racing at Kentucky Downs has increased from $20 million in 2010 to $800 million in 2018, leading to growth in the purses offered during the five-day fall meet.
Hoping to continue building on that growth in HHR gaming, the new owners are planning to add 13,000 square feet of gaming space and increase the number of HHR terminals to 1,200 – nearly double the current number.
R.T. Browning, a consultant to the Kentucky Racing Acquisition group, said the remaining 5,000 square feet in the expansion will be for “ancillary” additions such as expanded food offerings and entertainment.
The expansion, expected to be completed by next summer, will be followed by a remodeling of much of the interior.
“The owners recognize that they can improve the product for the customers,” Browning said last month when plans for the expansion were unveiled at a meeting of the Franklin-Simpson Planning and Zoning Commission. “They see the potential for this track.”
Winchell, a partner in Lexington’s Winchell Thoroughbreds, said as much at Thursday’s groundbreaking.
“We just wanted to make it bigger and better and add to the workforce,” said Winchell, who operates more than 20 gaming locations across Nevada.
Falcone, who has served as executive vice president and chief financial officer of Nevada’s Red Rock Resorts and Station Casinos, hinted that the growth might continue.
“This is really the next phase of growth for Kentucky Downs,” he said. “We’re excited to see what the future brings.”
The KRA group headed by Winchell and Falcone purchased Kentucky Downs from Kentucky Downs Partners, which had owned the track since 2007.