Odds are improving that Bowling Green residents could soon be able to get their gambling fix without leaving town.
In a virtual meeting, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted Tuesday to approve a request from Franklin’s Kentucky Downs to expand its licensed premises to an extension facility in Bowling Green.
Kentucky Downs’ request has been in the works since last fall, but Tuesday’s action came just days after both houses of the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation aimed at legalizing the slot machine-like Historical Horse Racing machines that have fueled the explosive growth of Kentucky Downs.
That legislation was necessary after the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in September that many types of the HHR machines in use at Kentucky Downs and other venues are illegal because they don’t constitute a version of pari-mutuel wagering that is authorized under Kentucky law.
Senate Bill 120, which changes the definition of pari-mutuel wagering to include betting on historical races, passed the state Senate 22-15 and the state House of Representatives 55-38.
Gov. Andy Beshear joined the KHRC meeting by video Tuesday and promised to sign the measure when it reaches his desk.
“I’m 100% for it,” he said. “This is a win for the entire commonwealth.”
It certainly could put Kentucky Downs in the winner’s circle. The venue’s growth is tied directly to the HHR machines that have helped increase purses for live racing.
Largely because of the HHR machines, betting on racing at Kentucky Downs increased from $20 million in 2010 to nearly $800 million in 2018.
Now a team headed by Ron Winchell of Lexington’s Winchell Thoroughbreds and former Nevada casino executive Marc Falcone that purchased Kentucky Downs in 2018 appears ready to raise the ante on its investment in HHR machines.
They have already grown in Franklin, announcing in 2019 a $25 million renovation and expansion of the venue that opened in 1990 as Dueling Grounds Race Course.
Nearly complete, the expansion adds 13,000 square feet of gambling space and increases the number of HHR terminals to 1,200 – nearly double the previous number. Plans also include new restaurants and a hotel.
And now, apparently, they include an expansion into Bowling Green.
A letter from Winchell to KHRC Executive Director Marc Guilfoil that accompanied Kentucky Downs’ application for an extension facility provided some details about the plans.
“The proposed facility will be within the requisite 60 miles of Kentucky Down’s racetrack and will not be within 60 miles of another association’s racetrack,” Winchell wrote. “It will not be within 40 miles of a simulcast facility.
“At this expanded licensed premises, Kentucky Downs plans to offer simulcast racing wagering as well as a variety of pari-mutuel wagers including exotic wagers, all yet to be determined.”
Winchell said having a satellite location for Kentucky Downs will be beneficial.
“The location will be a great benefit to the city of Bowling Green and Warren County, bringing additional tourism, tax revenue and much-needed jobs, as well as a benefit to the continued growth of horse racing in the commonwealth,” Winchell wrote.
Winchell did not mention a possible site for the Bowling Green location.
Guilfoil, speaking at Tuesday’s meeting, said Winchell and his partners are “down to two or three possible locations.”
“They don’t want to disclose them because of competition,” Guilfoil said.
Even among the state legislators who approved the revised definition of pari-mutuel wagering in SB 120, not everyone agrees that the bill’s changes or an expansion of Kentucky Downs are beneficial.
Although the measure easily passed the Senate, southcentral Kentucky Sens. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, David Givens, R-Greensburg, and C.B. Embry Jr., R-Morgantown, all voted against it.
Likewise, local House members Steve Sheldon, R-Bowling Green, and Steve Riley, R-Glasgow, voted against the bill. Reps. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green, and Michael Meredith, R-Brownsville, voted for it.
“I voted my conservative beliefs and values,” Sheldon said. “It was framed as merely changing the definition of pari-mutuel wagering, but expanded gambling is about what it amounts to.”
Sheldon said the change brought by SB 120 and the probable expansion of Kentucky Downs coming to Bowling Green would be more palatable if they come with higher taxes on wagering.
“There needs to be some significant tax (on HHR wagering),” Sheldon said. “In Illinois, Indiana and other gambling states, they’re getting twice the tax revenue we’re getting. There will be a push for Kentucky racetracks to pay their fair share in taxes.”
That viewpoint is supported by Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Bailey said three times more money is bet on HHR machines than on lottery tickets, but the lottery rakes in nearly 20 times more tax revenue.
Although he and Sheldon are far apart ideologically on other issues, Beshear agreed with the need to reform the tax structure on the HHR machines. He would like to see that happen during the half-completed 30-day legislative session that will continue next week.
“We need to get the second piece of this done on the tax structure,” Beshear told the KHRC during Tuesday’s meeting. “We need a fair and equitable tax structure, and we need to get that done before the legislature leaves.”
– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdaily news.com.