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By Jennie Rees — Kentucky Downs officially embarked on a new era under the ownership headed by Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone with Thursday’s groundbreaking for the $25 million first phase of the racetrack and year-round gaming and entertainment facility’s expansion and renovation.

“Today was starting the process: We’re going to make it bigger and better from top to bottom,” Winchell, a prominent horse owner and breeder in addition to being a Nevada gaming and entertainment entrepreneur, told the media after the ceremonial shoveling of dirt by the owners, civic leaders and key project personnel. “When you come in here a year from now, it’s not going to look like the Kentucky Downs you’re used to the last couple of years. “You’ll have a couple of new restaurants. You’ll have 18,000 to 20,000 feet of expanded building. That’s going to be more up to date, a better and more comfortable feel.

It’s just going to be a better experience overall for guests, so when they walk in the door, they’re going to have an elevated experience from what you have today from the esthetics perspective.” Kentucky Downs, purchased by the new ownership group in March, has become an economic engine, entertainment hub and tourism draw for the region.

The expansion is expected to increase the workforce about 20 percent, the owners said. Falcone said Kentucky Downs is still working on specific restaurants, “but it’s going to be a much broader offering than what we have today at Kentucky Downs. There will be options of steak, Italian, just a more diverse menu of offerings.”

Kentucky Downs also will renovate the existing facility during the first phase, with construction in stages so as not to disrupt the gaming operation, he said. “This really embarks on the next phase of growth for Kentucky Downs,” said Falcone, a prominent casino executive and financial specialist.

“We’re quite excited about what we’ve got planned. Over the next several months, you’ll start to see steel come out of the ground. There will be some exciting things, a more visual picture we’ll be able to share. Most important we need to thank all of our local partners, all the support organizations in Simpson County and the City of Franklin. Equally as important is thanking all the hard-working employees of Kentucky Downs…. We look forward to continuing to grow that work force.”

Making the economic success story possible is Kentucky Downs’ previous owners’ 2011 gamble on implementing Historical Horse Racing (HHR), the innovative electronic technology based on the result of previously-run races that meshes the excitement of video slots machines with the time-honored parimutuel system that is the linchpin of American horse racing. Kentucky Downs was the first track in the state to install HHR, the result being a blueprint that other tracks have followed.

As a result, the Kentucky racing circuit, which benefits from purse money generated from HHR, not only was righted following years of decline but now is the envy of the country and increasingly attracting horsemen, horses and their associated jobs into the commonwealth from out of state.

Civic leaders in attendance made it clear their communities are major beneficiaries as well. “In recent years Kentucky Downs has become more of a destination than ever before and while that is good for Kentucky Downs, it is great for all of Franklin and Simpson County,” said Steve Thurmond, executive director of the Franklin-Simpson Chamber of Commerce.

“From the shops on the Square to the hotels, motels and restaurants we all benefit from the successes here at Kentucky Downs. Today marks the beginning of a new era for the company and for the community as we break ground on this multi-million dollar expansion.”

The first of a projected three phases will almost double the area for historical horse racing gaming terminals, whose numbers will grow from the current 753 to 1,200. The first phase is scheduled for completion before the 2020 live race meet begins Wednesday, Sept. 2.

“This is a great event for Franklin and Simpson County,” said Mayor Larry Dixon. “Kentucky Downs being here will bring lots of people to downtown, to this area… We’re excited about this huge adventure for Kentucky Downs.” Simpson County Judge Executive Mason Barnes told the owners: “We really appreciate the investment you’re making here in Franklin and Simpson County…

Kentucky Downs, year in and year out, I think they are one of if not the largest draw for tourism in Simpson County.” Falcone told the media that a potential hotel, to be located on the opposite end of the main building, is in the planning stages for a subsequent phase.

“Kentucky Downs has had a great history here, going back to when it was originally called Dueling Grounds,” Falcone said. “As Ron and I conceptualized what the next phase of expansion would be, it was really taking the next step into creating that broader entertainment destination. We’re going to increase food and beverage offerings, increase entertainment offerings, more live music – just a better experience. It’s going to be much more exciting, much more fun, much more higher energy — and taking into account the great history that the track has always had in this community.

“This sits in an ideal location, 30 minutes outside of Nashville, an exploding population getting close to two million people. We said, ‘Hey, this is 300 acres of an opportunity to do much more than racing and historical horse racing. There are opportunities for much broader things with the real estate we have here long term. We looked at this as a 10-year project to encompass how to maximize and create a destination here in Franklin, Ky.”

Asked later if, with the recent election of Andy Beshear as Kentucky’s governor, Kentucky Downs would pursue casino gaming or sports betting, Winchell said: “We’re happy with where we’re at with HHR. We look forward to working with the new governor on anything that may be proposed.

It’s obviously all very new (the election), so we’ll wait and see what happens. “We knew what the landscape was when we bought the track (when chances were slim for legislation allowing for expanding gaming). We also know we’re happy with HHR, expanding where we’re at today and to keep growing it. What comes down the road, we’ll see when that gets proposed.”

Jennie Rees, for Kentucky HBPA, Ellis Park and KY Downs, is an HRI contributor           

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