Kentucky Downs plans major gambling expansion by this summer

Kentucky Downs has a long, successful history in the Bluegrass State, but an expected change in its operations has some gambling opponents crying foul. Primarily operating as a horseracing track, the property also offers limited gambling through slot machines and what are known as historical horse racing (HHR) machines. There are already 753 machines in place and an expansion project is underway that could see considerably more added. If everything stays on track, and Kentucky Downs doesn’t have to deal with a considerable amount of blowback from haters, the first phase of the expansion will be ready by this summer.

The track is expected to spend $25 million to add 20,000 square feet to its gambling floor. Along with that will come additional HHR machines, which have become hugely popular because of jackpots that can reach as much as $421,000. Kentucky Downs was recently given approval by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) to offer as many as 2,500 of the HHR devices, and track management has no problem taking advantage of the offer.

HHR machines work a little differently than regular slot machines. As the name suggests, they are tied to previously-run horse races, and gamblers make their bets based on specific contests. Whether they win or lose, and how much they might take home, depends on how well their picks do.

The VP and GM of Kentucky Downs, Ted Nicholson, expects the additional facilities to be ready by August 1. With a racing meet set for September 1, the property will have ample time to get the new machines in place before the big day. How many machines, though, still has to be determined. Nicholson explained to, “I think with this initial phase, this new phase, we’ll get up to 1,200, and then expand from there. Probably sometime within the next year or so.”

Kentucky currently doesn’t have any legal provisions for gambling, which is where opponents are struggling with the decision by the KHRC to sign off on the use of the HHR machines. However, a circuit court judge ruled in 2018 that the existing pari-mutuel laws allow for their use, paving the way for the devices to be seen more regularly. At least one opposition group, The Family Foundation, wasn’t happy with the judge’s decision and wants the Kentucky Supreme Court to weigh in on the subject.

The Family Foundation must be seething as it watches more venues roll out HHR machines. Churchill Downs is adding them to more of its facilities in the state and Ellis Park recently set up additional devices at its property in Henderson. Given that the machines are proving to be huge moneymakers (Kentucky Downs saw a handle of $523.8 million in the first half of the 2020 fiscal year), there’s zero chance any operator is going to be willing to slow down the rollout of the devices.