By Ken Snyder
Working as a groom between his junior and senior years in college, Corey Johnsen wagered his entire week's salary on a horse in his care in hopes of earning his second-semester tuition. Decades later, Johnsen, now president and part owner of Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Kentucky, gambles on the success of a turf-only course accommodating shippers-only with just a six-day annual race meet. Will it be a winner? If uniqueness were a guarantee of success, Kentucky Downs, hard by the Tennessee border, would be a huge overlay. It is billed as the nation's only European-style turf course but General Manager John Goodman modifies this slightly and perhaps best expresses its essence: "It's English racing meets the county fair."
Only the whine from tractor trailer tires on nearby Interstate 65 disturb a pastoral setting that might surpass the most scenic track in Ireland. There is no tote board in the infield, and the "grandstands" are the balcony on the two-story clubhouse and two well-weathered bleacher sections at the finish line that look as if they have been imported from the nearest football field. The large clubhouse, with tall palladium windows and white columns at entrances fore and aft, is Southern Colonial meets Belmont Park minus the ivy.
There is also a touch you won't find at a county fair: The jockeys' quarters are in a doublewide trailer, the kind likely to be found throughout a rural Kentucky far removed from the plank-fenced splendor of Bluegrass horse farms to the north. Taken together, Kentucky Downs is a delight, a jewel in comparison to big-city "race factories," and a total surprise among the chain restaurants and motels that are the obligatory fixtures at the Franklin interstate exit and seemingly all others in America.
Johnsen and ownership partner Ray Reid, a Texas investment banker, bought the track in August of 2007, gaining an 85% controlling interest from former owners Churchill Downs, Turfway Park and Kelley Farms. (Each of these entities retained a 5% ownership in the track.) They are proceeding with renovations and other changes as if the odds are far better than the 8-1 that Johnsen got on Hi Ho Dash many summers ago at Centennial Park in Denver.
The path to Franklin and ownership of Kentucky Downs is a long one for both Johnsen and Reid. For Reid it began in his college days, also. While at the University of Pennsylvania, he roomed with a member of the Hanover family of harness racing fame and became interested in racing. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that he was a student in Penn's Wharton School of Business, his interest specifically was in racetrack ownership.
Ownership of horses in partnership with Johnsen preceded Reid asking his partner to create a list of five tracks that might be in play for possible purchase. Kentucky Downs was on the list.
For Johnsen, his position is the latest in what has been a career lifetime at racetracks. From groom, he progressed to the grandstand side, working seasonal jobs first at Turf Paradise in Phoenix then at Arlington Park in the marketing and publicity department. "I was director of media relations for the inaugural Arlington Million," he said.
His first year-round job was at Louisiana Downs before becoming part of the management team that developed Remington Park. He moved from there in 1994 to help develop Lone Star Park in Arlington, Texas before leaving for the presidency and part ownership of Kentucky Downs. Additionally, he helped with the reopening in 1999 of Hipódromo de las Americas in Mexico City and Hipódromo Nacional de Maroñas in Uruguay a few years after that.
Perhaps reflecting his experience in developing tracks from the ground up like Remington and Lone Star, Johnsen's first priority at Kentucky Downs was, quite literally, the ground; and renovation of the turf course.
"I feel that a racetrack surface is the foundation to the success of any track," he said. In November, after Kentucky Downs' six-day September meet, Game Day, a company that maintains several different kinds of athletic fields throughout Kentucky, renovated the turf course. Game Day mowed the mile-and-five-sixteenths course down to the base, aerated it, seeded it with a specialty seed, and then top-dressed the turf with fine sand. Improvements followed in the clubhouse. A new sports bar opened and a chef was brought in from the Hyatt Regency hotel organization to add appeal to non-racing fans in the area looking for a night out. Significant, too, the track gained a liquor license last year.
With things seemingly in place for the new owners, the question is how can the track build on last year's second-highest on-track handle in history, $444,601, and a $9,618,208 all-sources handle that was 21% over 2006 numbers?
With only a six-day September meet that, while obviously brief, culminates in a $500,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Festival, the possibilities might seem limited. It is, however, the inactivity of Kentucky Downs, aside from six-day-a-week simulcast racing, that creates potential, according to Johnsen.
Future plans call for a regional horse center on the grounds--a "Kentucky Horse Park South," as Johnsen refers to it, or a counterpart to the real Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington that is a center for equine events for all breeds. "We have 250 stalls that sit empty 50 weeks every year. Why not utilize that infrastructure for horse shows, events, auctions, and those types of things?" Johnsen said
Steeplechasing is also a natural for Kentucky Downs and not just because of the gently undulating turf course. Nashville, barely 45 miles away, annually hosts the biggest steeplechase race in the country every year, attracting between thirty and fifty thousand people every May. "The event is a fund-raiser for a local hospital down there," Johnsen said. "What we want to do is tie in to that same hospital with a fall event."
Johnsen also foresees a time when his track would be in line to host the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase as well as turf races that would serve as strong prep races for the main Breeders' Cup event.
The foundation for the plans would seem to be solid. In addition to good numbers from last year, Kentucky Downs attracts top horsemen. Todd Pletcher sent out Kentucky Cup Ladies Turf winner Quiet Royal and won three other races during the meet. Calvin Borel, rider of ‘07 Kentucky Derby Winner Street Sense, also came down to ride the final three days of the meet. In addition, Jeremy Rose, regular rider of 2005 Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex, piloted the Grade III, $200,000 Kentucky Cup Turf winner, General Jumbo, to victory last year. Indicative, too, of the niche carved by the racetrack with Kentucky horsemen is field size: Over nine starters on average went to the post per race last year.
David Carroll, Churchill Downs-based trainer and conditioner of Derby third and Belmont second show-finisher Denis of Cork, is an unabashed fan of Kentucky Downs. "We've never had a problem with a horse there coming back," he said. "It's a fun place to go and I love going down there."
He does acknowledge that some trainers are concerned for the safety of their horses because of the gently rolling surface but believes concerns are misplaced. "What I find is that it is not so much the horses that don't handle it, but the riders," he said.
Jockey James Graham, also an Irishman who has ridden at Kentucky Downs, seconds Carroll. "You're best off walking the course before you ride it.
"Believe me, it's not a course you can ride like you ride every day," Graham added
A false straight on the kidney-shaped course's far turn has caused riding mistakes, according to Carroll. "You turn and you've got another turn too, and that's where a lot of jockeys get caught out and move too soon," he said.
With improvements, success, and acceptance by horsemen, a move to more race dates would seem obvious, but there are obstacles. First and foremost, a commission structure unique to Kentucky hampers purses at Kentucky Downs. "It calls for 50% of the commission earned on simulcast wagering at Kentucky Downs to go to the host track in Kentucky that is running at the time," explained Johnsen. Basically, half of what could go into purses or association expenses at Kentucky Downs goes to Ellis Park, Churchill Downs, Keeneland or Turfway Park.
Kentucky Downs must also weather something already experienced by Turfway Park and Ellis Park especially in Kentucky: trainers leaving the state for bigger purses at casino-supplemented tracks or racinos. Presque Isle in Pennsylvania, specifically, has already caused problems for Kentucky Downs.
"We had trainers who had run many horses with us in the past who have actually moved their Kentucky division to Presque Isle," acknowledged Johnsen.
"I can't blame them. They're running for $500,000 a day and we run for about $200,000."
Any purse total below that, according to Johnsen, would take away from Kentucky Downs. "You drop below that and I think the quality of our race meet decreases dramatically and thus the handle decreases and you head into a negative spiral.
"What we've found out is our year-round simulcast efforts and our on-track live handle for our race meet supports about six days of racing. If we wanted to do 10 days, then all of a sudden your purses drop significantly and then you don't get the horses.
"I think we've found a nice niche that has a limited effect on other tracks in the state, if there's any effect at all. At the same time we're an additive to the racing industry here by helping Kentucky benefit from the Nashville market." Penetration of that market, a tantalizingly short drive away, is a key objective but one contingent on increased purses and the bigger handle that would come with them. Casino gaming at Kentucky tracks, according to Johnsen, could increase purses and fund the kind of marketing efforts that Johnsen oversaw at Lone Star Park in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
This year the Kentucky legislature thwarted new governor Steve Beshear's push for casino gambling that would have brought slot machines to Kentucky Downs. Despite the defeat, Johnsen believes casino gambling at Kentucky racetracks in one form or another is inevitable. "We going to have fun without gaming and then, when we can supplement our purses, it'll be tremendous," he said.
Others without a stake in the success of Kentucky Downs echo a sunny outlook for the racecourse. Sports writer Michael Compton, who has covered Kentucky Downs racing for several years for Bowling Green's Park City News, believes the racetrack is "the little engine that could." Of the new owners he said, "You get the sense that they definitely are thinking about the future and have some nice ideas." Already, according to Compton, they've piqued interest in the area beyond racing fans with restaurant improvements and the liquor license.
The location, too, despite the small size of Franklin (population 8,000, approximately) is a plus. "Franklin, Kentucky used to be a sleepy little town, but now every month it seems there's an announcement about a new distribution center or a new manufacturing plant," Johnsen said. In short, the Nashville-Bowling Green, Kentucky corridor is growing, Johnsen observed, and he even sees some parallels between it and growth of San Antonio and Austin in Texas.
Johnsen would hope that there are similarities between his bet on Hi Ho Dash while a college student and his investment with Reid in Kentucky Downs.
With a knowing smile he recounted how he came to bet his week's wages- "$82 take home"-which he put on the horse. "Hi Ho came to us from California and the owner insisted he be run right away and ran horribly because of the climate and altitude," Johnsen said. "Three weeks later, he was acclimated and I knew he was ready." He won going away. "My tuition was $620, so I basically won it in my bet."
Inside knowledge might not be at work with Kentucky Downs but the improvements, strategy, and ownership seem to be in place. Johnsen is, after all, the same man who while president at Lone Star, snared the ‘04 Breeders' Cup from more established tracks. Continued and long-term success might not be nearly the surprise for industry observers as it would be for those venturing off Exit #2 - Franklin to discover Kentucky Downs.