THE KENTUCKY DERBY on the first Saturday in May is the world’s most celebrated horse race, but the sport can be enjoyed year-round in the commonwealth. In fact, with Cumberland Run harness track opening in Corbin this fall, nearly all Kentuckians will be within 135 miles of a racetrack, with the majority of the population less than an hour and a half away. Even if you don’t bet the ponies, an afternoon or evening at the races can be a delightful family outing.
Kentucky boasts five thoroughbred racetracks and Cumberland Run will be its third harness track. Each has a distinctive personality.
Open for business even when not racing
Kentucky’s live race meets run from about four months (Turfway Park’s December–March in Florence) to only seven days (Kentucky Downs in Franklin). But most of those facilities are open year-round for betting on other racetracks across the country, along with historical horse racing (HHR). That’s the innovative electronic gaming technology that mimics slot machines, but is based on the results of previously run horse races and is parimutuel—that is, players bet against one another instead of the house.
Exceptions: All HHR and most simulcast wagering in Lexington are held at The Red Mile harness track. HHR and simulcasting in northern Kentucky are at Turfway Park’s satellite Newport Racing & Gaming facility during construction of Turfway’s new grandstand and HHR facility. While Churchill Downs is open year-round for simulcasting, its HHR operation is 6 miles away at Derby City Gaming.
Another satellite HHR facility recently opened and there are more to come. Kentucky Downs in late December opened The Mint Gaming Hall in Bowling Green, and The Cumberland Mint in Williamsburg is scheduled to open this July, a short drive from the new Corbin harness track. Derby City Gaming in Louisville and Ellis Entertainment Owensboro should be operating next year.
Some of these venues offer live music in the evenings. Admission is free, but guests must be at least 21.
Racing as it was meant to be— with a modern twist
Keeneland, which opened in 1936, long has promoted itself as “racing as it was meant to be” while also being an innovator. The new looks like the old as additions blend seamlessly into the limestone grandstand.
The National Historic Landmark is widely hailed among the world’s most picturesque tracks, nestled amid horse farms with dogwood and redbud trees blooming in the spring and maple trees bursting into scarlet and gold in the fall.
Myriad well-appointed reserved seating and dining options are available for Keeneland’s three-week meets in April and October. General admission is $10 ($7 online), with access to plenty of spaces inside and out, including a host of concession and bar areas.
On a budget: Tailgate for free in the paved parking areas and on “The Hill,” which on Fridays and Saturdays offers food trucks, bluegrass music, jumbo monitor and betting. Come out in the mornings and watch horses train for free, then enjoy a homestyle breakfast and rub elbows with owners and trainers in the track kitchen.
Churchill Downs: Iconic meets modern
When Meriwether Lewis Clark opened Churchill Downs in 1875, he also launched the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, patterned after England’s renowned classic races for 3-year-olds and 3-year-old fillies. Churchill’s Twin Spires, completed in 1895, rank among the most iconic symbols for a sporting venue in the world.
While celebrating its history, Churchill Downs since 2005 has methodically brought the track into the 21st century, including an array of suites and rental areas. New for 2022 is the Homestretch Club. Check out www.churchilldowns. com/tickets/seating-options for reserved seating and dining options.
On a budget: Those going during Derby Week will find opening night Saturday or the subsequent Tuesday, Wednesday and even “Thurby” far cheaper than Kentucky Oaks and Derby.
Bring your own chair and join the thousands enjoying Derby and Oaks days from the infield—$65 for Oaks/$85 for Derby on race day; save $5–$10 by buying online. General admission most days the rest of the year is $5, with prices higher for the themed Downs After Dark night programs and special events. Sixty and older get in for $3 most days, with children 12 and under free.
Ellis Park: Celebrating 100 years
Ellis Park—named for its longtime owner James C. Ellis, who rescued the track out of bankruptcy—is Kentucky’s second-oldest thoroughbred track and celebrates its 100th year in 2022. No other track can boast soybeans in its infield, hence the nickname The Pea Patch. The track, flanked by Indiana farmland and levees, is located on the sliver of Henderson north of the Ohio River, a geographic quirk created when the river changed course amid the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812.
On a budget: Parking and general admission are free. Going to the races is a generational tradition in the Tri-State region. It’s common to see three generations of a family, down to babies in strollers.
Kentucky Downs: Beyond unique
Opening as Dueling Grounds in 1990 as a steeplechase course on the Tennessee border in Franklin, Kentucky Downs has gone from oddity to industry leader, a blend between Britain’s Royal Ascot and a county fair. The track, which pioneered HHR in the commonwealth in 2011, offers among the world’s richest race purses. Running exclusively on grass Kentucky Downs is America’s only European-style course, with its kidney shape and undulations.
On a budget: General admission is free, including tailgating on the far turn. Reserved seating and dining are cheaper on weekdays in the open-air Finish Line Pavilion (popular with owners and trainers) and the air-conditioned VIP Chalet that debuted in 2021.
Turfway Park: Another renaissance in the works
Northern Kentucky’s Turfway Park opened in 1959 as Latonia Race Course in Florence, 13 miles west of the original Latonia Race Track that ran 1883–1939. The track had a complete makeover in 1986 when new ownership rebranded it as Turfway Park, attracting horses such as Derby winners Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm. Hit hard by regional casino competition, Turfway endured a 20-year skid and ownership turnover until purchased by Churchill Downs in late 2019.
Augmented by HHR, Turfway has a bright future. The old building was razed, with an HHR facility opening this summer and the new grandstand to be in place well before racing resumes at Turfway in December. Because of construction, the public was unable to attend Turfway’s four-month 2021–2022 winter season that ended in late March.
JENNIE REES is a horse-racing communications specialist, working for Kentucky Downs, Ellis Park, the Kentucky HBPA horsemen’s association and others.