Updated September 5, 2019 - 6:51 pm
It seems that I’m not the only Las Vegas resident fixated on Kentucky Downs.
Ron Winchell, a longtime resident of the city, was so taken with the unique racetrack in Franklin, Kentucky, that he decided he needed to buy it.
Winchell should be no stranger to racing fans. He inherited a love of the game from his late father, Verne, founder of the Winchell Donuts chain and an owner and breeder of thoroughbred racehorses.
With his mother, Joan, Ron carried on the family’s Winchell Thoroughbreds operation, notching numerous successes before reaching the heights as co-owners of 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner. But the undulating turf-only track near the Tennessee border prompted him to take his participation to a whole new level.
“I raced a couple horses there and was very impressed,” he said this week. “The purses and what was going on with historic racing was a sort of catalyst, something I viewed as elevating Kentucky racing to a significant degree.”
Winchell, who also runs the Winchell Pub & Grill chain in Nevada, enlisted Marc Falcone, a former Station Casinos executive, formed a new company and bought Kentucky Downs for an undisclosed amount in March.
Now he’s experiencing his first meet as a racetrack owner.
Winchell said he’s not looking to change the formula that his predecessors used to make the facility a financial success, i.e. using revenue from year-round simulcasting and more than 750 historical horse racing machines on site to generate huge purses and attract big horses to the track’s five-day meet, which concludes Sept. 12.
But that doesn’t mean he will sit on his hands. He and Falcone are planning a major expansion of the facility, with a long-term goal of making it a “destination gaming” resort. They also plan to ask the state for two additional racing days to make it a seven-day meeting.
As a racetrack owner, he’ll also be grappling with the rapid spread of sports betting, which many track operators view as an onrushing threat that will accelerate shrinkage of racing’s fan base.
But Winchell says there may be opportunity to introduce new fans already interested in sports betting to horse racing.
“I think the impact still has to be determined, but somebody has to figure out how to make it beneficial,” he said. “It’s been out there, so it’s not like people haven’t been illegally gambling for a long time.”
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicapping crew also likes Kentucky Downs and will scratch and claw to ferret out the winners of Saturday’s $1 million Kentucky Turf Cup, a 1½-mile turf test for 3-year-olds and up, as well as the $1 million Jockey Club Derby Invitational at Belmont Park, another turf marathon at the same distance exclusively for 3-year-olds.
In the latter, the handicappers are following a well-worn path and backing trainer Chad Brown’s 5-2 morning line favorite Digital Age, with Thread of Blue (4-1) and Spanish Mission (3-1) tabbed in the second and third slots.
Brown does seem to win every big turf race back east, but I’m going to try to beat him with Henley’s Joy (5-1), a colt who is making his first start at the distance but has tactical speed and gives every indication he will relish the added real estate. I’ll take European invader Spanish Mission for the place and Digital Age to show.
In the Kentucky Turf Cup, the crowd ’cappers are sticking with the 5-2 morning line choice: the Brad Cox-trained Arklow. They like Zulu Alpha (9-2) and Campaign (5-1) in the minor placings.
Arklow is the real deal and has a win over the track, but he’s been coming up short in his races this year. So I’ll take a shot with Campaign, who barely picked up his hooves in the Pacific Classic but is 2-for-2 at Kentucky Downs and is saddled by the sharp Southern California-based trainer John Sadler. I’ll use Arklow in second and Pillar Mountain (10-1) in third.
Ellis Starr’s Kentucky Turf Cup analysis
Although Arklow deserves tremendous respect for his body of work, which includes five first-place and four runner-up finishes in 16 career races on grass, his stablemate Factor This is a bit more intriguing from a betting perspective as he is likely to go to post at higher odds. Both are trained by Brad Cox, who has proven himself one of the top trainers in the country. Currently fifth on the North American racing leaders list, Cox has started 121 horses in stakes races this year, winning 27 percent of those races. I think those statistics show Cox is a trainer who knows when his horses is ready for top levels of competition and in this case Factor This has a good shot to compete although he’s never raced at this level. When returning from five months off in March, Factor This ran on dirt, finishing seventh. Moved back to turf on April 24, Factor This controlled the pace to win easily and earned a career-best 105 Equibase Speed Figure. He bettered this figure two races later winning the Kentucky Downs Preview Kentucky Turf Cup Stakes last month at Ellis Park with a 109 figure. In 2018, Arklow won that same race with a 111 figure, so the 109 figure Factor This earned looks very similar on paper and can be bettered just like his stablemate did last year when earning a 114 figure in the Turf Cup. Jockey Florent Geroux was aboard Factor This for all three victories this year and has decided to ride Arklow in this race but I’m not concerned one bit about the jockey change to Shaun Bridgmohan. Bridgmohan has been another of the trainer’s top riders over the past year, teaming up to win 49 of 132 races (37 percent) together. Another reason I think Factor This can run as well or better in the Turf Cup is based on a STATS Race Lens statistic which shows trainer Cox has kept his charges in top form to win back-to-back in turf route races in 34 percent of 151 starts over the last two years. Even if Factor This doesn’t get the early lead as he did in his first two wins of 2019, he proved capable of coming from just off the pace to win the Preview so he could be tough in this situation and post the upset to win over Arklow, who earned a 118 in the Bowling Green Stakes at the end of July and who will be closing very fast in the stretch in this year’s Kentucky Turf Cup.
Zulu Alpha and Bigger Picture call the barn of excellent trainer Mike Maker their home. Maker also trains Noble Thought. Zulu Alpha joined the Maker barn last summer and immediately won the Sycamore Stakes at this marathon trip in October. Two races later he won the similar McKnight Stakes and Mac Diarmida Stakes in January and March. In two of four races since, Zulu Alpha has come very close, missing to stablemate Bigger Picture in the Elkhorn Stakes in April and missing by a neck in the United Nations Stakes in June. Even though finishing further back in the Bowling Green Stakes in his most recent race, Zulu Alpha earned a career-best 117 figure and was just a half-length behind third place finisher Arklow. Recent Saratoga riding title winner Jose Ortiz takes the call and rode Zulu Alpha in the Elkhorn, a race in which Ortiz moved the horse mid-race from seventh to take the lead before being passed and ending up third. If Ortiz can help Zulu Alpha save that kind of kick for the stretch drive in the Turf Cup, he could be right there at the finish. Bigger Picture rallied from seventh to miss winning by a half-length in last year’s Turf Cup behind Arklow and could run as well or better this year. Since that race he has won the John B. Connally Stakes and Elkhorn Stakes at this 12 furlong distance on grass and was fourth of eight in the United Nations, albeit one and one-half lengths behind stablemate Zulu Alpha. With 12 career wins and $1.6 million in earnings on turf in his career and with top form not far away, Bigger Picture rounds out a quartet I feel has the bulk of the probability to win this race.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.