Opinion: Turfway Park has gained a national reputation as destination for Thoroughbred racing

By Sen. John Schickel and Joe Clabes
Special to NKyTribune

With the conclusion of this year’s Triple Crown races, it is an excellent time to reflect on the prominence of Turfway Park on the national racing scene. Several horses that raced at Turfway Park competed in this year’s Triple Crown races and showed they can compete among the world’s top three-year-olds. Endlessly, West Saratoga and Epic Ride earned their spots in the Kentucky Derby, while Seize the Grey went on the win the Preakness and run in the Belmont Stakes.

Since the launch of historical horse racing nearly a decade ago, purses in Kentucky have increased significantly, revitalizing the sport. Purses are the “mother’s milk” of Thoroughbred racing because good purses attract world-class horses, trainers, and owners from around the globe. Our Turfway Park and Northern Kentucky have been among the greatest beneficiaries of this resurgence, fueled by the establishment of historical horse racing facilities in Newport in 2020 and at Turfway’s primary location in 2022.

Sen. John Schickel (Left) and Joe Clabes (NKyTribune file)

The resurgence of Thoroughbred racing highlights the importance of this signature industry to our region. The owners, Churchill Downs, have invested millions in the backside of Turfway, bringing new barns and dormitories. Kentucky’s very identity is horse racing, and its value to our community cannot be overstated, both financially and culturally. The one area we still need to improve is the Turfway Park racing fan experience; we are working on that. Perhaps fans could even tour the backside as part of this experience, as they do at Keeneland and Churchill Downs.

Recently, we toured the backside of Turfway Park Racetrack. The backside offers a different view of what Thoroughbred racing, our signature industry, means to Northern Kentucky. We met at 7 a.m. at the track kitchen for a delicious breakfast. After that, we toured the barns and spoke with trainers, owners, hot walkers, and the staff to get a feel for what happens there each and every morning. The backside is an exciting community full of beautiful horses and colorful characters. Even though live racing is not happening at Turfway this time of year, the training facility is open and packed. Each morning, world-class horsemen and their employees are training and preparing their horses to compete at all levels of racing.

We spoke to top trainer Brendan Walsh, who explained that he maintains a stable of 65 horses training at Turfway this season. He expressed his love for Northern Kentucky because of the airport’s convenience, allowing him to fly in and out quickly, and the ability to stay at a local hotel with easy access to the track. His employees like the convenience and quality of life that Northern Kentucky provides as well. It is said that for every Thoroughbred horse, there are 15 spin-off jobs, which boosts our local economy.

Turfway Park racing (File photo)

Top trainer Eoin Harty recently moved a large portion of his operation from California to Northern Kentucky for many of the same reasons. A common theme with all the trainers and riders we talked to is the enthusiastic support for the Tapeta surface, which many believe is safer for young horses to train on. Their transition to the dirt and turf courses at Kentucky tracks, like Churchill Downs, and those in neighboring states has been very positive. Trainers also love the track’s location and transportation infrastructure, the airport, and the expressway, where they can easily transport horses all over the country.

With significant investments in local tracks and the dedicated efforts of trainers and their teams, Northern Kentucky continues to play a crucial role in the sport’s revival. Thoroughbred racing’s economic benefits demonstrate its value to Kentucky, supporting growth and community development. Looking ahead, Turfway Park’s continued success and the dedication of those involved promise a bright future for horse racing in Northern Kentucky and the Commonwealth.

Sen. John Schickel resides in Union and serves Kentucky’s 11th Senate District in Northern Boone County. He is the Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee Chairman and was the primary sponsor of 2021’s Historical Horse Racing legislation, Senate Bill 120.

Joe Clabes resides in Lexington and grew up in Thoroughbred racing as the son of trainer Gene Clabes. He currently races under his stable name, Alliand Equine, and is managing partner of Northern Kentucky-based racing syndicate Selima Holdings. He has advocated on behalf of the Thoroughbred industry in roles with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, The Kentucky Equine Education Project, and the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and currently serves as Executive Director of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.

One thought on “Opinion: Turfway Park has gained a national reputation as destination for Thoroughbred racing

  1. The “Turfway Park racing fan experience” is horrendous. It won’t be fixed with tours of the backside. Turfway Park, from an ordinary citizen perspective is a casino where they allow you to look out a window and see a portion of a race.

    Churchill Downs spent $200 million last year on renovating their paddock. The entire Turfway Park casino structure, including the racing ballroom experience, cost less than half that.

    It’s way past time for Churchill Downs to do right by Northern Kentucky and build seating and basic fan facilities for the horse racing fan in Kentucky. And Northern Kentucky politicians need to pressure Churchill Downs to do that, and not write puff pieces about backside tours, on their behalf.

    It’s probably time to check which Northern Kentucky politicians pockets are being lined by Churchill Downs so they don’t have to do right by the nky community.

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