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Fall Live Racing


By Nancy Brannon

For five days in September, folks from the mid-south area can travel a relatively short distance to enjoy a day’s live Thoroughbred racing at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, KY, just over the Kentucky state line north of Nashville, TN.
“Kentucky Downs is the only ‘European style’ turf race course in North America,” said President Corey Johnsen. While most race tracks offer both dirt and turf courses, Arkansas’ Oaklawn track in Hot Springs has a dirt track only, and Kentucky Downs has a 1 5/16-mile European-style turf only course. The course features subtle elevation changes, a sweeping turn into the stretch run, and a quarter-mile run from the end of the final turn to the finish line.

Johnsen says that spectators can “expect to see some of the best horses in North America at Kentucky Downs. Traditionally, older horses come to turf courses like Kentucky Downs. They have more time to develop over turf. Most horses come here from Kentucky, i.e., Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Ellis Park, but there are also horses who come from Arlington Park in Chicago, from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Delaware.

Kentucky Downs is considered a “ship in” track, where horses are shipped in to the track on race day, but train elsewhere. The track does provide 250 stalls in stabling facilities, but horses do not live and train there throughout the year as they may do at other tracks. Horses that come from Louisville or Lexington, KY may leave their stable around 5:00 a.m., get to the track before 9:00 am, race, and then go home at night. The horses that travel further are usually brought in a day before their race.

“Some of the leading Thoroughbred trainers race their horses at our track,” Johnsen said,” for examples, Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott.” Racing fans may know Pletcher as instrumental in the development of such horses as Thunder Gulch, Harlan, Serena's Song, A Wild Ride and Flanders when he was assistant trainer for D. Wayne Lukas. Bill Mott is most remembered for his work with Cigar. “Fort Larned, who won the 2012 Breeders Cup, won an allowance race at Kentucky Downs when he was a three-year-old,” Johnsen added.

“Many people like to wager based on how the horses look,” said Johnsen. So the Paddock Area is a good place to see the horses close-up, as they are saddled and walked just prior to the race. For watching the race itself, spectators can enjoy the amenities of the climate-controlled Clubhouse, or find outside seating close to the finish line, where there are tents and a pavilion. “We like to have a festival atmosphere,” Johnsen said. “It’s like New Market England meets a Kentucky County Fair. Visitors can expect to see the best quality horses, jockeys, and trainers. They can see top quality horses in a beautiful setting and have an enjoyable afternoon of racing.”

Race days are: September 7, 11, 14, 18, and 25. The first race starts at 1:35 p.m. and there are ten races a day, usually finishing the race day around 6:00 p.m. Average daily purses for the five days of all-turf racing will reach $900,000. The signature event of the track's 21st meet is the $400,000 Kentucky Turf Cup (G3), which is the centerpiece of Kentucky Downs Million Day on September 14. One of eight stakes during the season, the Kentucky Turf Cup will be joined by four $150,000 added-money events on Kentucky Downs Million Day, when total purses for the 10-race card will reach $1,374,000. September 7 also is a million-dollar day of racing when the card will feature three $150,000 stakes, including the inaugural running of the Kentucky Downs Ladies Sprint.

Kentucky Downs was originally called Dueling Grounds because it was erected on the “dueling grounds” where in the 19th century gentlemen from Tennessee would travel just across the Kentucky border to settle their differences in a pistol duel. At that time, dueling to resolve arguments was illegal in Tennessee, but was lawful in Kentucky. When dueling became illegal in Kentucky as well, the 260-acre site was used for agricultural purposes until a group of investors acquired the property in the 1980s to develop a turf race track to host Steeplechase races. The 1 and 5/16 mile race course and colonial-style clubhouse opened in April 1990. The race track operated as Dueling Grounds until 1997, when new owners renamed the track Kentucky Downs. In 2007, a group of investors led by Nashville businessman Ray Reid and former Lone Star Park president Corey Johnsen purchased a majority interest in Kentucky Downs.

Kentucky Downs is located on Interstate 65 near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, just 35 miles north of Nashville. Parking and admission are free and a buffet is served daily. For more information, visit or call (270) 586-7778.

If you can’t wait until September for racing action, Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky offers live Thoroughbred racing from July 4 through Labor Day (September 2). Gates open at 11 a.m. on race days and post time is 12:50 p.m. CDT. Ellis offers both dirt and turf racing, and the meet is highlighted by the Gardenia Stakes (GIII) on August 10. Ladies Day is August 24 and “The Big One” handicapping contest is August 31-September 1.

Ellis Park was constructed in the 1920s, modeled after the famous Saratoga Race Track. The track is a little over two hours’ drive (143 miles) north from Nashville, TN and Clarksville, TN on I-24 and KY-9004 N. For more information, visit

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