In a somewhat surprising development, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Thursday that the state’s four historical horse racing (HHR) parlors will be allowed to reopen Monday.
Representatives from Churchill Downs, Keeneland/Red Mile, Ellis Park, and Kentucky Downs submitted a plan to the governor’s office last week detailing how they would implement social distancing policies and other protocols to control the spread of the coronavirus. The tracks’ parlors have been closed since mid-March.
“They provided a very compelling plan where we believe that people can stay safe,” Beshear said during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Frankfort.
HHR machines have the look and feel of slot machines and video poker terminals. However, while the outcomes from slots and video poker games are randomly determined, HHR, also known as instant racing, is based on how a player picks the outcome of one or more previously run horse races. Players can use the limited information available to choose the order of the horses or they can let the computer pick based on the odds.
Slots are illegal in Kentucky, which only allows the state lottery, charitable gaming, and pari-mutuel betting. The state’s Supreme Court has ruled that instant racing meets the definition of pari-mutuel betting.
The machines have allowed Kentucky’s tracks to reinvest significantly in its live racing purses, which in turn has allowed them to attract more horses. Larger fields typically lead to more attractive odds for bettors.
After Churchill Downs opened Derby City Gaming in September 2018, the Louisville track increased its purses for the 2019 spring meet by about 50 percent to $33.5 million.
Kentucky’s tracks have more than 3,000 HHR machines at the four parlors, and additional machines and facilities have been approved by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC).
Tracks Racing to Get Ready
Under the order, when HHR parlors open, they will be limited to 33 percent capacity for the time being.
Keeneland Vice President and COO Vince Gabbert told Casino.org the Lexington thoroughbred track plans to open the venue it operates jointly with Lexington harness track Red Mile on Monday if it can get employees tested in time.
The announcement capped a whirlwind couple of days for Ellis Park officials. On Wednesday, during a meeting of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund (KTDF) Advisory Committee, Ellis Park General Manager Jeff Inman told state racing officials he and others at the Henderson track were “moving heaven and earth” to run the summer meet, which is scheduled to start June 28. He also told them the track needed to have a reliable revenue source, such as HHR or on-track betting.
A day later, Inman and his staff held an impromptu meeting immediately after the governor’s announcement to make sure they would be ready to open up on Monday.
We have always said that we intend to run this race meet,” Inman told Casino.org. “We can breathe easier now that this decision has been made by the governor.”
Ellis Park has more than 300 HHR machines, and Inman said his manager has worked out a spacing plan that will allow the track to operate about 140 of the machines and still meet social distancing guidelines.
The revenue generated from HHR will not provide an immediate boost to either track’s purses for their upcoming meets. However, it will help with Keeneland’s fall meet in October and Ellis’ 2021 meet.