Sep 26 2013

Experience Kentucky Downs – The Only European Style Track in North America

Neal at Kentucky Downs

The author near the finish line.

In September, 2013, I finally made it to Kentucky Downs. I can now cross this off my bucket list! I attended two days of live racing, with two completely different experiences.

Before I get into that, let me describe Kentucky Downs, as it is a truly unique venue for racing in North America.

It is modeled after European Turf courses, which are not oval, and definitely not flat.  Kentucky Downs has undulations on the track that include both rises and falls at various points.  Further down in the article we will show the course layout and some live pictures.

Day One (Wednesday, September 11)

Tent near Finish Line

Ominous Skies

The day started out very hot and humid, with a threat of thunderstorms. For the first four races I was sitting under the tent pictured to the side. Then, with skies darkening, I decided to take cover in the main building where the casino is housed. This turned out to be a good move, as within minutes of my departure, severe lightning started to break out. Within minutes there was a loud snap through the audio system, and the video screens all went blank.

Rumors started to spread inside that there was a lightning strike on the tent near the finish line (where I had been sitting). Turned out the rumors were true, and apparently a few spectators were shocked, including one woman who was taken to the hospital.  Fortunately no one was seriously hurt.  Unfortunately, the severity of the storm and the resulting hit to the tote system and video feed forced a cancellation of the remaining races.

Day Two (Saturday, September 14)

Fans at Kentucky Downs

Stretch Viewing Area

72 hours later, and a much different story. Sunny skies and temperatures in the mid 70s made for a stunning day at Kentucky Downs. With music playing and patrons spread out over the grass, horse racing was conducted in a manner that I imagine was normal back in the 1800s.

Family and friends shared food and drink, watched intently as horses paraded only a few feet away from them, and cheered wildly as they rushed down the lane to the finish line.

Paddock at KD

Kentucky Downs Paddock

In all of my years attending racing, I’ve never had such a communal experience.  We were all together, in a relatively small area, inhaling and exhaling as one body.  There were young and old, male and female … regular people.

Listening to many of them, they knew some things about horse racing too.  This was not like a day at Saratoga, with fancy hats, but little knowledge of the sport.  These people “got it.”  And I have to say, it was an amazingly fresh experience for me.

Kentucky Downs, the Race Course.

Kentucky Downs

To the side is a diagram of the course outline. But it doesn’t come close to describing the “lay of the land.” The backside has a noticeable incline. Then the far turn sweeps down and bends around before the horses briefly disappear behind some trees. As they straighten away into the stretch run the ground seems to flatten, but then as they hit mid-stretch, there is gradual, yet noticeable incline that continues all the way to the finish line. Below are a series of photos to help you see what I’m describing.

Backside KD

Kentucky Downs – Incline on the Backside.

Far Turn KD

Kentucky Downs – Decline into the Far Turn

Final Turn KD

Kentucky Downs – Final Turn before Stretch Run

Uphill Finish KD

Kentucky Downs – Uphill to Finish Line (This is the same horse leading in the first two pictures above).

Having followed racing at Kentucky Downs from home last year, I was curious why, with such a long stretch run, horses rarely make up a lot of ground in the stretch.  After seeing it first hand, I think the combination of the downhill turn into the stretch, combined with the incline in the lane just make it harder for horses coming from behind.  This seems especially true for the sprint races, where the frontrunners get some separation from the field by heading downhill immediately after breaking out of the gate.  Just like our website name suggests, “Getting out of the Gate” means everything in racing at Kentucky Downs.

Click here to read more from Kentucky Downs “Live Racing” web page.

Click here for some tips when handicapping the unique Kentucky Downs turf course.  Included are details about the performance of favorites at the 2013 meet, as well as the impact of speed and pace at various distances run on the course.  All very useful information for the handicapper.



The Article Sponsored By ADIRONDACK BEVERAGES (A Favorite Cooler Drink Of Racing Fans at Saratoga)

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

10 comments on “Experience Kentucky Downs – The Only European Style Track in North America

  1. Neal, After reading your blog, I am placing this track on my racing must see list. Thanks for the fine story. I have a couple of questions. Do staff review and repair the track between races? Do they have adequate drainage or do they tend to lose races to the rain? Where do the people in the open air go to wager? Does a general admission fee get you into the open air seating in your picture? Thanks Neal for your fine work.

    • I’m not certain about the track repair, but will pay closer attention to that this year (returning for another visit in a couple of weeks). Regarding the rain, after the huge thunderstorm on Wednesday last year, it seemed like everything dried up quickly for the races on Saturday. I will inquire about the drainage. Regarding wagers, there is an outdoor wagering “shed” with both tellers and betting machines. There is no charge for admission or for parking. Hope to see you in Franklin, Kentucky!

    • Manny, we’re in Nashville, about 35 miles from KD. We circle KD weekends on the calendar 12 months in advance. We carry in our own lounge chairs, setting them up right on the finish line. Many others do the same. There are tented areas available as well if the sun gets to be too much, which in September it can.

      To answer part of Brigadoon’s post, between races maintenance guys come out to the stretch and replace divots like caddies on a golf course. It’s actually kind of amusing.

      This place is like a tailgate at a horse race. Awesome fun, laid back atmosphere, and the class of racing is excellent.

        • I will be the one cashing the large trifecta ticket!

          Seriously though Neal, I’ve always enjoyed your excellent commentaries. I will be at KD on the 13th, and possibly the 6th depending on other commitments. I would love to meet you.

          • That sounds like a plan! Barring anything unforeseen, I will be there on the 13th! It shouldn’t be too hard to locate me … I’ll be wearing my Getting Out Of The Gate T-shirt!

  2. I think this is a fantastic idea, a new venue as it were… a new experience for our American runners….an exciting new idea for a grand old sport..

    cynthia whitten on

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