February 21, 2013

Publisher's Notebook: Horse track brings a jolt

By Willie Sawyers

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The news came like a lighting bolt from the blue, jolting the people of Southeastern Kentucky awake from their winter- and recession-induced slumber: Keeneland wants to build a horse racing facility near Corbin.

The questions of who, what, when where and why immediately sprang to mind, along with visions of us standing on the rail watching chiseled equine athletes sprinting to the finish line on a sunny afternoon at a beautiful track in our own back yard.

The who is a name closely related to successful horse racing and one that gives us hope the facility will actually become a reality. Everything that Keeneland does is first class and well organized. It has the prestige, the financial backing and the political clout to get it done, especially after it’s been developing plans the track for some time already.

It’s a safe bet Keeneland wouldn’t be wasting it’s time, resources and reputation on a project with little chance of success. That makes us just as excited and giddy as a yearling foal.

What? The track will be operated as a joint venture between Keeneland and Full House Resorts of Nevada. The two propose to buy the Thunder Ridge harness racing track in Prestonsburg and move it to the Corbin area. But it would feature quarter horse racing instead of harness racing.

Why quarter horses? They are the most popular breed in the world with 550,000 registrations within 300 miles of Corbin. The thoroughbred industry is well served by Keeneland and the other Kentucky tracks, but there is a pent-up demand for quarter horse racing among breeders and fans.

The need was identified in 2007 when another well-respected racing group announced plans to bring a quarter horse track and a casino to London on west Ky. 80 near the Optimist Club complex.

But those plans fell through when the state legislature failed to pass expanded gambling, as hoped by the horse racing industry.

When? Keeneland officials just recently applied filed paperwork for the ownership change of the Prestonsburg track, which will have to be approved by the state Horse Racing Commission. Moving the track to southeastern Kentucky and converting it to a quarter horse facility will need commission approval as well.

But again, Keeneland carries a lot of clout so expect things to move along very quickly, which means exciting things could be happening soon in our neck of the woods.

Speaking of woods, where will the track be built? Keeneland officials are a little vague, mentioning near Corbin, south of Corbin and the I-75 corridor. That means anywhere from London to Williamsburg.

The south Corbin I-75 interchange is right in the middle and seems logical, but it doesn’t have an ample supply of flat land. Keeneland not only needs land for the track, but also enough for ancillary facilities and lodging and dining facilities. Perhaps it is looking for land away from the interchange on U.S. 25 toward Cumberland Falls, or land along the Corbin Bypass.

Jerry Wayne Garland, owner of G&M Oil Co. in Corbin, told the Herald-Leader that he had 100 acres of prime land for a race track on Exit 29 where a truck stop used to be.

That location is a prime spot with a view directly from I-75. But the exit is not incorporated, which means at present alcohol is not allowed to be served at restaurants or sold in stores. The track would need to serve alcohol.

Perhaps the Keeneland track will be the perfect opportunity for Laurel County officials to meet with Corbin city leaders and discuss annexation in logical, sensible manner. Whatever the track needs from the state, counties or cities in the way of infastructure and support should be made available without hesitation.

The prime quarter horse track will a boon to the entire southeastern Kentucky region no matter where it’s located. This game changer is too big for petty jealousies or long-standing issues to derail.

We’re awake now, and it’s time to get to work.