Originally created 09/24/05

Kentucky Downs offers unique atmosphere



FRANKLIN, Ky. - The horses take the track for a race on opening day at Kentucky Downs, and as they pass by a group of dachshunds, the dogs - who will race later that afternoon - begin barking.

After the race, members of the starting crew return to one of the two infield ponds and grab their fishing poles, hoping for a nibble before they return to work. Meanwhile, the jockeys head to their quarters: a trailer parked behind an open-air press box, itself behind a half-dozen sets of weather-worn bleachers.

There are more familiar scenes in Kentucky racing - the majestic twin spires at Churchill Downs in Louisville, or the dogwood trees and stone buildings at tradition-steeped Keeneland.

And then there is Kentucky Downs, an ear-shaped grass track located 2 miles north of the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

"We are what we are, whatever that is," said Ryan Driscoll, Kentucky Downs' general manager. "Every day here there is something that will make you chuckle. We're so laid back here."

Because of its remote location, about 20 miles south of Bowling Green and 40 miles north of Nashville, and its short racing schedule - only six days and 44 races each September - few casual racing fans know much about Kentucky Downs.

In fact, Driscoll said the reason the track offers live racing is so that it also can have an off-track betting facility. Kentucky Downs makes little money and its owners hope that it someday can offer casino gambling, if that is approved by Kentucky legislators.

Those who do know about Kentucky Downs seem to enjoy what Driscoll calls the Simpson County track's "country fair" atmosphere, complete with a big picnic tent, grilled hot dogs and hamburgers and even an occasional "wiener dog" race for charity - but without an infield tote board.

"It amazes me that they don't have a bigger crowd," said Donnie Fitzpatrick of Scottsville, who attended the track's opening day. "To me, it's the biggest bargain in sports, anywhere, that I've ever seen."

The track opened in 1991 under the name Dueling Grounds. It went bankrupt in 1996, was sold at auction in 1997 and didn't hold races either year. In 1998, the new owners - a consortium led by Churchill Downs and Turfway Park in Florence - reopened the track as Kentucky Downs.

The track has 13 full-time and 40 part-time employees, as well as 30 temporary employees hired for the track's six days of racing. The 36-year-old Driscoll spent 11 years at Louisiana Downs before becoming Kentucky Downs' general manager in 2001.

"Everything we do down here is so out of the norm," Driscoll said. "It's been an educational process for me, because I came from a track that had luxury suites, alcohol sales, video poker machines and eventually slot machines. Marketing that track was a lot different than marketing this track. Here, we're 35 miles out in the country in a dry county. I believe we are the only dry racetrack in America."

Driscoll said that when the track was laid out, little thought was put into it: "People say that all that Dueling Grounds did was throw fences up in a pasture, and they're pretty much right."

But that ended up being a blessing, as the European-style course has become known for its quirkiness. Among the track's many undulations is a hill on the backstretch that leads into a more severe turn than those at a normal oval-shaped track. It led to the creation of race announcer Luke Kruytbosch's catch phrase - "down the dip and around the turn they go."

The quarter pole, located on the turn on most tracks, is at the top of the stretch at Kentucky Downs, and the finish line is a quarter-mile from the track's clubhouse.

"That's the oddest thing of all," trainer Nick Rennekamp said. "The cheap seats have the best view of the finish line."

At that finish line, horses also are heading slightly uphill.

"The hills, the lefts, the rights - it just makes it interesting to ride," said jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., who first rode at the track last year. "It's a totally different race that you ride out there. It opens up new challenges. You get so used to riding turf courses and dirt courses that are the same everywhere you go. You ride at those places all year long, and they're nice to ride at, but when you come to a place like this, it's more country and down home. It's fun."

At 1 5/16th miles, the track is the longest turf course in the United States.

"Horses who have never raced over this course either run real well over it or they don't run at all," trainer David Carroll said. And if they don't adapt to it, jockey Inosencio Diego said, "It's a long ride."

Because of its short racing schedule, and the fact that the track allows little training, few trainers stable their horses overnight. The barns have raised roofs and wood - not concrete - stalls.

Kentucky Downs relies on help from other Kentucky tracks. Kruytbosch is also the announcer at Churchill Downs. Equibase chartcaller Cliff Guilliams performs the same duties at Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Ellis Park in Henderson. The racing secretary has the same job at Turfway Park. The starting crew is from Keeneland, which, like Churchill Downs, lends one of its starting gates to Kentucky Downs for the meet.

When Kruytbosch calls a race, he sometimes loses sight of the horses on the backstretch because of the hill. Unlike Churchill Downs, where he's in an enclosed booth seven stories up, he's only one floor up at Kentucky Downs, outdoors and crowded next to a camera operator.

"Everybody knows this is the hardest place in the country to call races, so you do the best you possibly can and bear down on it and hopefully it will turn out all right," he said. "It's very confusing. The angle fools you so much when they hit that first turn and go out around and then dip down.

"There's nothing even close to this in North America as far as uniqueness."

Horsemen often ask Driscoll why the track doesn't have more racing dates. The answer is simple: There aren't any available. Kentucky Downs shares two Saturdays with Turfway Park, which doesn't have a turf course, and also races on two Mondays and two Tuesdays, when Turfway Park is off.

Every other weekend but one - around Christmas - is taken by one of Kentucky's other thoroughbred tracks.

Kentucky Downs attracts its share of big names, including trainers such as Bill Mott and D. Wayne Lukas and jockeys including Rafael Bejarano, who won six races on a single day during the 2004 meet.

"Through the years, we've developed ourselves as a legitimate racetrack," Driscoll said. "I'll admit that when this place first got started, we were viewed as a bit of a novelty and as a place where trainers would come run their second- or third-string horses.

"The last two or three years, people are sending their better stock down here and these races are very competitive. I always say that if you can run over this track, you can run anywhere."