Highest Average Daily Purses Outside Japan
It’s almost post time as Kentucky Downs kicks off America’s unique race meet Saturday with a 10-race card featuring four stakes worth $1.8 million, including purse supplements for Kentucky-born and -sired horses.
“The enthusiasm and buzz going into this meet is unprecedented in Kentucky Downs’ 26 seasons of conducting live racing,” said Ted Nicholson, Kentucky Downs senior vice president and general manager. “We have gone from being thought of as a quirky or novelty track to being a major player in the industry, and we take those responsibilities seriously. We are working hard to put on the finest racing and betting product for our horseplayers on track, in the region and nationally. We continue to upgrade our facilities and are always looking for ways to kick it up a notch."
Kentucky Downs is offering a record $10 million for its five-date, all-turf meet that runs Sept. 1, 6, 8, 9 and 13, with first post 1:25 p.m. CT. That $2 million-per-day purse average is the largest in the world outside of Japan, topping even the $1.63 million daily average in Hong Kong.
The money is in large part thanks to the success of Kentucky Downs’ historical horse racing operation, the innovative technology that combines the parimutuel system that is fundamental to American racing with electronic terminals that pay out based on the results of previously-run races.
Kentucky Downs’ purses totaled $746,810 for 30 races in 2011, for an average of $25,660 per race, when historical horse racing was first installed after the race meet. Purses paid out to horse owners has skyrocketed each meet since, to $8.6 million last year for 50 races, an average of $172,508.
“As soon as last year’s record-smashing meet concluded, our staff was at it the next day brainstorming how to be even better, how to make the experience more enjoyable for our on-track guests and off-site consumers. Since last year, we’ve completed our most extensive capital project since the track was built in 1990. One of the appeals of Kentucky Downs is its outdoor, almost fair-like atmosphere. But we hope our guests take the opportunity to check out our renovations throughout our main building.”
The average could be as a high as $200,000 per race this year. And that doesn’t include $2.9 million transferred in purses in Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund money to Ellis Park in an agreement with the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, which represents owners and trainers at the state’s five thoroughbred tracks, or the $500,000 apiece that is being transferred to Keeneland and Churchill Downs.
“I was leading trainer there, what happened?” joked Wesley Ward, whose three Kentucky Downs training titles came back when the money wasn’t as lucrative but who did win two stakes in 2017. “You get a 12-horse field, and there’s eight or nine in there that could win the race. As opposed to years prior when there would be one or two contenders and everybody else was just kind of taking a shot down there. It’s getting to be more contentious and tougher to win.”
There are 14 stakes races spread over the five days, ranging in purses from $250,000 to $750,000. In addition, Kentucky Downs offers four starter-allowance races on Sept. 9 with pots of $100,000 apiece for horses that have started for a claiming price of $25,000 or less in 2017 or 2018. Those are created as prep races for the Claiming Crown Championships at Gulfstream Park, the big-event day for the blue-collar horses that fill out so many racing programs across America.
Every horse that runs, down to the last-place finishers, gets at least $750, the highest guaranteed money in the country for non-stakes races. That’s a policy instituted last year to help defray the costs associated with running a horse, such as vanning expense and jockey’s fee.
“You start preparing for it months in advance, actually,” said trainer Brad Cox, whose entries will be among the favorites in both $750,000 stakes: Saturday’s Tourist Mile with Mr. Misunderstood and the Sept. 8 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup with Arklow. “There’s always the horse that you think might like the grass, and for that amount of money you’re going to find out. The purses definitely make you think grass for some that you might not be thinking it with otherwise.
“It’s a tremendous meet, and it gives these owners an opportunity to make some cash flow as far as keeping their business going with these horses. Hopefully they can maybe expand the meet a little bit in the future.”
Kentucky Downs — voted the top-ranked track by the Horseplayers Association of North America the past three years — leads the country in average field sizes, at almost 11 horses per race last year. The track also has the lowest overall takeout (the amount taken off the top of each dollar bet that goes toward purses, parimutuel taxes and the track’s cut) in North America. Kentucky Downs went a step farther this year by lowering the takeout of the popular Pick 4 wager from 19 to 14 percent.
“Going to Kentucky Downs is very unique,” said jockey James Graham, who is from Ireland. “It’s a very fun course to ride if you have the right horse. It’s not your typical grass course that we see in the United States. It’s great purses. You just have to hope you ride the horses that are fast enough to win.”
The atmosphere, he said, “is great, like a country fair.” And the best part of riding at Kentucky Downs? “Everything,” Graham said. “Everything is the best part of Kentucky Downs. It’s fun. Real fun.”
Saturday’s opening card features four stakes, headed by the $750,000 Tourist Mile and including the $400,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile and Exacta Systems Juvenile Fillies for 2-year-olds at a mile and the $250,000 One Dreamer for fillies and mares that have not won a stakes this year.
New this year is the $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint, which is the world’s richest prep race for the new $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint to be held 130 miles away at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2. The Kentucky Downs is part of the five-stakes extravaganza on Sept. 8 topped by the $750,000 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup, one of four Grade 3 races that day.
Also that day, Kentucky Downs is honoring the Grand Prize winners of its #LiveAtKyDowns Post Time social-media contest: Tom Pinkowski of Mount Sterling, Ky., and Dennis Poppe of Seattle. Because the competition was so terrific, Kentucky Downs added four honorable mention recipients, with Kimberly Mosier of Muncie, Ind., Jim Reams of Somerset, Ky., and Gregory Holloway of Louisville the track’s guests opening Saturday. The fourth recipient, Ann Chaloux of Livonia, Mich., is unable to attend.
Megan Devine, a Santa Anita analyst and frequent TVG studio host, joins Caton Bredar and Gary West on Kentucky Downs broadcast team, with The Downey Profile’s Dick Downey also providing his selections at kentuckydowns.com/racing and at thedowneyprofile.com. John Lies once again will serve as track announcer.
TVG will provide extensive coverage of the meet, including having a crew onsite for the first time with Scott Hazelton reporting live from Kentucky Downs on Sept. 6 and 8.
Because of the increased demand for Kentucky Downs’ reserved seating areas, the track added a fourth venue: the Top of the Stretch Chalet, in addition to the existing Finish Line Pavilion, which has been upgraded with a more permanent structure; Turf Club Tent in front of the clubhouse building; and the second-floor Director’s Room. Guests can also enjoy the free tailgating area just past the Top of the Stretch Chalet.
Admission and general parking are always free at Kentucky Downs, with valet parking available.
The promotions include:
--an autograph session with Mike Smith on Thursday, Sept. 6, with the Hall of Fame jockey signing Coady Photography prints of Triple Crown winner Justify to raise money for charity;
--College Day on Sunday, Sept. 9, where students with valid I.D. cards can sign up for drawings to win one of 10 Microsoft® Surface tablets courtesy of the Kentucky HBPA or one of two $1,500 scholarships; and
--Family Fun Days on Sept. 1, 8 and 9.
Edited release with additional content by Dick Downey