It may have been a safe bet that the coronavirus pandemic would slow the growth of Franklin’s Kentucky Downs horse racing and entertainment venue, but the facility’s new owners are beating the odds with a major growth strategy now taking shape.
Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone, partners in the Kentucky Racing Acquisition group that bought Kentucky Downs in March 2019, announced expansion plans last year that will add to the historical horse racing machines that are the facility’s bread and butter while also planning for more live entertainment and dining options and – eventually – a hotel.
The first phase of that $20 million expansion is nearly complete, and it will provide more opportunities for patrons to use the HHR machines that allow people to bet on races that have already taken place.
Kentucky Downs plans to open a 30,000-square-foot HHR gaming hall in September – just in time for that month’s six-day live horse racing meet that begins Sept. 7.
Called the Mint Gaming Hall, it will add more than 600 new HHR terminals and other amenities that will include a multimedia center bar with an adjacent entertainment stage and a new high-limit betting area.
A news release said the gaming hall is the first of a multi-phase expansion and growth plan.
When the entire project is done next year, Kentucky Downs will offer about 1,100 HHR games in the 110,000-square-foot facility that will include new restaurant and dining options.
“This (expansion) has been going on for a little while,” said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs senior vice president and general manager. “We made it through the craziness of COVID-19 and can now see light at the end of the tunnel. It will be amazing to have a facility with added space for gaming and restaurants. To top it all off, we eventually want to build a hotel.”
Despite the social distancing restrictions of the pandemic, the HHR machines have continued their popularity at Kentucky Downs, which opened in 1990 as Dueling Grounds Race Course.
Since the introduction of the HHR machines, betting on racing at Kentucky Downs increased from $20 million in 2010 to $800 million in 2018.
Nicholson said Kentucky Downs reduced its HHR capacity from 750 machines to about 500 because of coronavirus restrictions, but he said the venue has seen little drop-off in gaming.
“Our average handle (total money bet) per month is around $90 million,” Nicholson said. “I think we’ve been very successful in having our guests feel safe.”
Nicholson said Kentucky Downs has seen “very strong” HHR traffic despite taking safety measures such as temperature checks, mask-wearing and social distancing.
That HHR success buoys the track’s simulcasting and beefs up the purses for live racing.
Nicholson said the September live racing will offer a total purse of $12 million. A Kentucky Downs news release said that is the highest average daily purse in North America.
“That’s mostly derived from the HHR games,” he said. “Adding more machines on the floor plays into additional purse money.”
The expansion is expected to add more than 75 jobs with positions in food and beverage, housekeeping, security, gaming technology and marketing.
Nicholson believes it might also position Kentucky Downs to take advantage of expanding gambling that has been debated for years in the Kentucky General Assembly.
“We’re hoping that can pass in 2021,” he said. “We’ve been close a couple of times. If we can add sports betting, that will be icing on the cake.”
– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.