Handicap Division

Invest in the Small Tracks

When it was announced that Churchill Downs International (CDI) was buying Turfway Park, I had an immediate mismash of emotions. I was elated because one of my favorite tracks was finally getting the attention it sorely needed but also apprehensive. After watching Arlington Park get hung out to dry by CDI (their owners), I was not looking forward to the plans they had for the track. Would it stay a track or were they making way for their casino interests just down the road? When the concept plans were released not long after the announcement went public, I’ll admit I felt a lot better about the future of Turfway.

Night racing at Turfway Park // Dec 8, 19

The apprehension expressed on social media in conjunction with the release mirrored many of my own concerns: what would happen to racing in northern Kentucky? Would it be a situation akin to what happened with Hollywood Park? Thankfully, at least for now, the fears have been quelled with assurances that the focus will remain on the horse(wo)men and not the slot machines. Anyone who races or has been to Belterra or Parx or any of the slot-supplemented tracks can attest: not everyone is focused on the horses and it shows.

However, if forced to choose between Turfway and Churchill Downs, I far and away prefer the former. Why? For starters, Churchill is so built out with so much stuff packed into it, it’s almost comical. I was going through my pictures and the infield is so busy no matter where you stand or what angle you shoot at -barring shots focused on the grandstand. The politics notwithstanding, I harbor a great mistrust for any company that claims it cares about racing but forgets to put any effort into their stabling area despite announcing another multi-million dollar project. When your track hosts the most famous race in the country, you have no business neglecting the one place where the horses spend 90% of their time.

In comparison, Turfway just seems…friendlier. You walk in and you’re not overwhelmed with all the lights and advertisements and sponsorship placement. It feels something like Keeneland’s motto: racing as it was meant to be. I have no doubt the buildings and the like will be gorgeous after the remodel, but what of the track? The paddock? The backside? This ambitious endeavor is projected to cost $150 million dollars if all goes to plan, and though all that’s available now is renderings, I really hope the ones who make this whole deal turn are not forgotten. I sincerely hope all the money is not sunk into the casino area and everything else is half-heartedly finished. According to the schematics, a smaller dirt track will be installed inside the main oval (I have no clue why given the surging popularity of turf races in this country) and the synthetic will remain in its current place. If they truly go according to plans, it’ll look a bit like Keeneland minus a grass course.

But, most of my musing is far in the future. The track is open for racing and will run through their dates, which will end in March 2020. This is the perfect place to find your feet. For those not quite feeling brave enough to attend a big racing weekend at places with household names, this is a very good starting point. In retrospect, there has to be a friendly environment for all the beginners, someone who will pick up for what Churchill Downs and all the mega tracks lack. Someplace without the cutthroat competitive gamblers and allows for beginners to make mistakes.

On my end, my protectiveness stems from this track being my first taste of night racing. Before Turfway, I had never watched nor held any interest in anything whose post time was after 6pm. I know…what limited thinking.

Now, after seeing how friendly and open everything is, I would hate to see things fundamentally change. I understand that buildings will be replaced, and everything happens for a reason but it would be a shame to see the very nature of the beast altered, too. Turfway feels like home away from home, no matter what time of the day you show up be it 5AM before the sun is even up or 6PM for first post, long after the sun has gone down.

But perhaps I am just being melodramatic -it’s a habit of mine sometimes.

My personal angst aside, if you’ve never visited, please do. See it now, broken down and in need of care but filled with passionate horsepeople. Then see it again once it is beautiful and new and the crown jewel of northern Kentucky. Walk the halls and see the enormous photos of champions on the walls on the ground floor; heroes of bygone eras like Thunder Gulch. In the heyday, greats of the equine variety got their start here. Hall of Fame riders rode here. It’s glorious and hallowed ground you’re walking on. A trip down memory lane for the eldest among us.

For the younger generation not as familiar with the old guard, a more recent graduate of Turfway racing is 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom.

So, come visit. I promise, the passion for racing in the trainers, riders, staff, and fans will not change even when the appearance does. We will still be out there, cheering on our charges, fighting The Man anyway we can (I.E. standing on walls to take pictures), and loving every day. Perhaps that’s the most poignant thing I’ve learned from my time spent on the backside…to just not think too much and enjoy my job. Enjoy the day. Enjoy the fact that there is racing and it’s beautiful and it’s safe here.

So, at the end of this post, my ultimate plea is to invest and patron the small tracks. Yes, go to Keeneland and Churchill and Gulfstream and Belmont Park to see the championship horses. Yes, buy the fancy tickets and mingle with people who make my yearly salary in a month. Yes, try everything this great sport can offer but when you come home, don’t forget the small tracks. They are the catalyst into the industry for a great many people and they can be great places, too.

An interesting video about Turfway’s history is provided below. If you can’t watch it for some reason, try downloading it here.