November 28, 2023

A Day at the Races: Kentucky Downs

Life, time, and finances, individually or in combination, get in the way of a lot of things. It’s the best response to the light-hearted incredulity I sometimes receive when declaring I’ve never been to “X,” attended “Y,” or done either for a long time.

Perhaps keeping others in ignorance would indeed be bliss, but there’s no sense faking it. The important thing is, knowing now what I’ve missed, not to have anymore excuses going forward.

That’s my main takeaway from belatedly attending Kentucky Downs for the first time Saturday on what turned out to be the biggest day in track history. Not only did veteran attendees suggest throughout the afternoon that it was the largest crowd they had ever seen on-site, but all-sources handle on the 10-race card was $8,163,362. That was a 41 percent increase over the previous record set on the corresponding Saturday in 2016.

When you do that kind of business (second best behind Belmont Park on Saturday) you’re doing something right, and that’s basically the reviews we’ve all read and heard about Kentucky Downs for the past several years. Whether you’re talking accessibility, pricing for the on-track visitor and out-of-state bettor, atmosphere, family friendliness, or the quality of the racing product, the all-turf, country fair-style course has justly earned its straight As.

While it didn’t completely feel like it to a member of the working media on a day that included four lucrative stakes, the best adjective I can use to describe an afternoon at Kentucky Downs is “relaxed.” For the fans down below, to the staff and officials up top, and to the jockeys using a trailer as temporary quarters, the scene was as laid back as you’ll find anywhere. Very much a working vacation.

The hard-to-please folks accustomed to the conveniences and amenities of the conventional American racetrack may find the on-track experience at Kentucky Downs “challenging,” but it’s really one of its charms. North American racing is homogenized to a far greater extent than virtually every other place in the world, and as I discovered when visiting Hong Kong last year, seeing it presented in an entirely different light is a great way to rejuvenate and maintain your interest in the sport.

While it may sound like I have a fetish for paddocks after recent trips to Delaware Park and Indiana Grand, I have to admit Kentucky Downs’ is undoubtedly one of its primary features. A colleague, who has never visited the course but for whom I showed this image, was quick to say how very much the bucolic scene was so much like that part of the commonwealth, where he happened to be born and raised. A corner of the spacious walking ring, next to the saddling stalls, also serves as the track’s winner’s circle.

Perhaps my positive impressions of Kentucky Downs are, to a small degree, influenced by the success I happened to have at the mutuel windows. Certainly less attractive venues can quickly become a favorite if your handicapping is unusually spot on throughout a card. While thrilled my experience was enhanced by that, I honestly don’t think it colored my thinking greatly.

The fact Kentucky Downs only runs five days per year (for now) undoubtedly leaves its partisans wanting more, and a lot of it. It will be a long 50 weeks or so before I have the opportunity for another go round, but something tells me it will all be worth the wait.

(All photos by Vance Hanson)