One of the success stories in Thoroughbred racing over the past decade is located square on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, surrounded by farmland, with the relentless bustle of I-65 within eyesight and earshot.
Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky., started in 1990 as Dueling Grounds and held steeplechase races along with year-round simulcasting. After some lean years, Kentucky Downs began its steady ascent into one of the most popular boutique venues for racing fans and handicappers in the United States roughly 10 years ago, when the current ownership team purchased majority interest in the track.
Why, you may ask, would a rural, turf-only racecourse that only holds five racing dates per year be so cherished when September rolls around? There are many reasons, starting with a gigantic clue right upfront: this is Kentucky Downs, meaning that even it it’s a few hours away from the home of the “greatest two minutes in sports” and the rolling hills of Bluegrass country, it is still part of a state where folks are devoted to all things equine as a matter of birthright and heritage.
But there are many other reasons, and they make Kentucky Downs a universal attraction to anyone who loves to watch and wager on horse racing. The track’s limited calendar makes it tough for people to plan a visit, especially since turf racing dates are always at the mercy of weather conditions, but truthfully Kentucky Downs should be on the bucket list of any racetracker worth her or his visor and binoculars.
Here are some of the best things about visiting Kentucky Downs, which holds live racing this year on Sept. 6, 7, 9, 10, and 14. Admission is free. Opening day originally was scheduled for Sept. 2 but was postponed due to inclement weather.
Grass Lovers’ Paradise, Euro-Style
Kentucky Downs has a 1 5/16-mile turf course that is shaped somewhat like a kidney, and it is undulating as well. Horses navigating a mile and a half – the distance of the track’s marquee event, the Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup on Sept. 9 – must maneuver through a sharp first turn, travel down and then up a dip in the course on the backstretch, and then sweep around a bulging round far turn before hitting the long homestretch. In other words, here, and only here, are American racing fans going to get a first-hand sense of what many European turf courses are like.
Viewing the races at Kentucky Downs on simulcast television does not give one anywhere near an accurate impression of just how challenging the course is. I recommend watching a race or two from the clubhouse second floor deck positioned near the top of the stretch, where you can see the entire course layout, and then walk about a quarter-mile down to the finish line area adjacent to the paddock to watch several more from ground level (you will see the horses disappear for a bit during each race as they run down the backstretch hill from this vantage point). All in all, it’s an experience like no other and gives one a great appreciation for just how much stamina is prized in classic European flat racing. It also makes for some ultra-competitive contests, which leads to…
Gold Star from Horseplayers
Kentucky Downs has been ranked first among all North American tracks by the Horseplayers Association of North America for three years running. It consistently offers overflow fields throughout each card, and the purse structure has exploded over the past half-decade due to Kentucky Downs installing Instant Racing gaming machines back in 2011, with part of the revenue from said machines allocated to horsemen at Kentucky Downs and at other tracks in the commonwealth. This has led to takeout rates that are the lowest in North America, and it fueled a record handle of more than $22.5 million for the 2016 meet.
Granted, holding a five-day boutique meet with gigantic purses means that races are incredibly easy to fill compared with a racetrack that’s committed to a more traditional, one- or two-month meet. Still, Kentucky Downs’ races are so chock full of evenly-matched horses that a typical card offers a buffet of big-score opportunities that are absolutely tantalizing to handicappers. “Bet a little to win a lot” was the title of a recent Richard Eng column for America’s Best Racing, and few tracks offer that sort of ideal risk versus reward structure more than Kentucky Downs.
The Sept. 6 opening day card at Kentucky Downs features overflow fields of 16 horses for seven of its 10 races, with another drawing 15 entrants. Case closed!
A handicapping note: The high purses and other industry-friendly incentives mean that some of the best trainers and jockeys in North America will converge on Kentucky Downs for the next three weeks. Still, from my experience, it’s always a good idea to give extra weight to those who have a lot of training and riding experience at this unique course when deciphering a race, especially for maiden and claiming contests. Florent Geroux has dominated the jockey standings for the past two meets, but local riders such as Brian Hernandez Jr., Robby Albarado, James Graham, and Corey Lanerie often get the most out of their mounts. And keep an eye out for horses shipping in from Ellis Park after racing on the turf there, too.
A County Fair Atmosphere
The introduction of Instant Racing has spurred some much-needed renovation to Kentucky Downs’ clubhouse, with an improved simulcasting section and more food options. But it would be beyond exaggeration to say that the facility and grounds are Keeneland-esque… and that’s part of the place's charm.
The majority of live racing fans at Kentucky Downs congregate at the area near the finish line, which as noted above is a couple hundred yards north of the clubhouse. Tents are set up for food, seating, and accessing betting machines, and fans can easily walk over to the small and well-maintained paddock area to get up close to the horses. Family- and kid-friendly perfectly describe the finish line area, and the staff is also very welcoming. In short, think of a county fair that just so happens to feature world-class turf racing and you’re on the right track, especially if the weather lucks out and brings an early fall crispness to the air.
Kentucky Downs also has its own branch of the popular Old Friends Thoroughbred retirement home adjacent to the track, open year-round. Residents include popular Turfway Park and Keeneland stakes winner Ball Four, 2008 Kentucky Turf Cup winner Rumor Has It, and Canadian champion Thornfield.
Music City Booming
Two of Kentucky Downs’ rescheduled five 2017 dates fall on a single weekend, and two more are on the Wednesday and Thursday preceding it … so if an extended stay in the area is doable, by all means make those plans. Nashville is less than an hour away, directly south via I-65, and the Music City is in the midst of a dizzying economic development, construction, and tourism boom.
Downtown Nashville has its share of tourist traps, and the Broadway blocks close to the Ryman Auditorium (original site of the Grand Old Opry) and Bridgestone Arena (where the NHL Stanley Cup finalist Predators play) are very crowded during the day and positively rowdy at night (the iconic Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway is still worth a quick visit just to soak in the ambience of the hundreds of country music legends that used to drink there).
But Nashville has much more to offer once you get out into the city’s perimeter. Live music is a constant draw in the Music City, of course, and venues abound, from Mercy Lounge on Cannery Row just a few blocks south of downtown, to the City Winery in the same vicinity, and on to Exit In on the west side near Vanderbilt. The 18th annual Americana Festival, held at a variety of places, runs from Sept. 12 to 17 this year and overlaps with Kentucky Downs’ final race date on Sept. 14.
As for food, the hot fried chicken craze emanates from the Music City, and Hattie B’s and Prince’s are two of the most popular spots (two Nashville locations for each). Puckett’s Grocery downtown has been an area institution providing the famous Nashville “meat and three” since the 1950s. And my own recommendation, the vegetarian Sunflower Café, is reportedly planning to move from its current Berry Hill location a couple miles south of downtown but should still be serving up its delicious, fresh meals at its original spot through September.