By Jeff Noble
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Keeneland’s hoping to make a success in southeastern Kentucky, and they’re hedging their bets that a quarter horse racetrack in the Tri-County will be a winning showplace.
The association that runs the Lexington-based thoroughbred horse racing track and auction sales company confirmed Friday they will build a quarter horse track near Corbin.
The track will be operated as a joint venture between Keeneland and Full House Resorts of Nevada. The two will buy the Thunder Ridge harness racing track in Prestonsburg and move it to the Corbin area.
While he did not discuss specifics Friday, Keeneland Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer Vince Gabbert did confirm a couple of locations south of Corbin along the I-75 corridor were being considered.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for some time, and we feel like it’s time to announce it. We are looking at land in the Corbin area, and we think we know what we want. We have to look at infrastructure, traffic, location and other variables. We need a significant piece of land, but we want room to expand with other amenities,” Gabbert said in a telephone interview from Lexington.
A definite date for when the property will be purchased, when the building of the track will start, or when the track will open wasn’t announced. Gabbert said the paperwork was filed on the ownership change with the state Horse Racing Commission, which would also have to approve moving the Prestonsburg track and making it a quarter horse track.
Gabbert noted the facility would be more than just a racetrack.
“We envision a full-scale entertainment venue, with the possibilities endless. It would be a fully modern facility, with room to grow if we need to do so. And we have our name on it. People associate Keeneland with quality, tradition and excellence. The community is very much woven into what we do. With that comes a great amount of responsibility. We want people to take pride in our product the same way we do,” he said.
Gabbert said the track’s ownership and operation would be shared with Keeneland by Full House, which owns six casinos in four states, including one across the Ohio River from Kentucky in Rising Sun, Ind. The facility near Corbin would feature quarter horse racing dates in the summer, which would include top purses on races along with simulcasting and instant racing, also known as historical wagering.
Approved in 2010 by the racing commission, historical wagering was ruled legal by Franklin Circuit Court, but the case was appealed by the Family Foundation of Kentucky, which opposes gambling expansion.
Gabbert noted a bill to approve historical wagering is expected to be filed in Frankfort in the state legislature next week. If the bill is approved, the appeal by the Family Foundation before the state Supreme Court could be a moot point and could be ruled in favor of the track.
The news of the quarter horse track being built in the Corbin area brought optimism from some area officials Friday.
“When I heard the news this morning, I was tickled to death about it,” Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney said in a phone interview. "That will definitely be a big boost to our entire area. Wherever they put it, the quarter horse racetrack would benefit all of us economically."
"Look at how many people go to Lexington to the races and the horse sales at Keeneland each year. Keeneland coming here will do the same thing for the Corbin area," Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White agreed.
“Kentucky is known for horse racing, and having the track in the Tri-County will reap benefits to our region. We could draw from Knoxville and East Tennessee, because they don’t have this kind of entertainment. People from Somerset, Middlesboro, and especially along I-75 and east U. S. 25 will drive to see quarter horse racing. They’ll have to build the facility, the stables, the infrastructure and that will bring jobs. Tourist-related industries will benefit, and it’s a win-win situation for this area,” said Knox County Judge-Executive J. M. Hall on Friday afternoon. "I hope they use Knox County, but if they don’t, the Tri-County can all share in the track’s coming to the region and its economic benefits."
Gabbert said the track will bring to the region a type of racing not usually associated with this state.
“From a marketing standpoint, we’re looking at quarter horses. We feel like the thoroughbred breed is well-served in Kentucky. We also feel this will serve a need to the quarter horse industry, and to fans of the sport.”
For those involved in racing and raising quarter horses, the news from Keeneland was welcome.
“We have a substantial quarter horse population in Kentucky, but a small amount of quarter horse racing in this state. We had to re-legalize it back in 2004 due to regulations, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to build the sport here. There’s no significant quarter horse racing east of the Mississippi River,” said Rich Wilcke of Henry County, who is also a national racing committee member of the American Quarter Horse Association.
“People have looked at the Corbin-London area as the last frontier for horse racing in Kentucky. You’ve got the location, you’ve got the regional market, and you’ve got the horses. Looking at the registration numbers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and nearby states, we can confirm there are over 550,000 quarter horses within about 300 miles of Corbin. Those people who own them may not all be racing fans, but they love quarter horses. The name ‘quarter horse’ comes from the horse’s ability to race a quarter of a mile. And if you build it, those fans will come to watch ‘em race.”
Gabbert said, for this reason, the location near Corbin seems like a good fit.
“It fits from a marketing standpoint. It takes in an underdeveloped area, like Knoxville and eastern part of Tennessee, as well as areas like the Lake Cumberland region of Kentucky. With the tourism industry already in this part of the state and nearby, it’s a good fit. We’re developing this as a strictly private venture. When we get there, we’ll meet with the local authorities,” Gabbert said.
The Keeneland Association was founded in 1935, with Keeneland’s first race card on Oct. 15, 1936. Based in Lexington, the current President/CEO is Bill Thomason, who grew up in London.