Kentucky tourism authority approves $27 million in incentives for planned racing and gaming venues

Churchill Downs in 2002. (Photo by Todd DeFeo/The DeFeo Groupe)

(The Center Square) – The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority on Monday gave final approval for tax incentives on a planned harness racing track and satellite historical horse racing (HHR) parlor in southeastern Kentucky that will be a joint venture by Keeneland and the principal owners of Kentucky Downs.

The authority, in its only action of the virtual meeting, voted unanimously for the ECL Corbin LLC project in open session after a 15-minute discussion in closed session.

Danielle Jones, executive director of the office of public affairs for the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, confirmed to The Center Square after the meeting the project qualified for up to $27 million in incentives. That’s up from the $23.5 million the authority preliminarily approved in its July meeting.

ECL Corbin plans a harness track in Corbin, which is about 75 miles south of Lexington. The new track will be the third harness facility in the state and allow for a longer racing schedule. The joint venture also will operate an HHR parlor in Williamsburg, about 15 miles south of Corbin and 10 miles from the Tennessee state line.

Previous reports indicated the Williamsburg facility would offer about 400 machines. The Corbin track is expected to have machines as well.

HHR machines look like slot machines found at casinos. However, rather than using a random number generator to determine winners, HHR machines use the outcomes of previously run races.

ECL Corbin ran a meet earlier this year at The Red Mile harness track in Lexington, and Vince Gabbert, vice president of strategic initiatives and legislative affairs for Lexington-based Keeneland, told The Center Square they may need to use another venue to hold the meet next year if the Corbin track is not completed in time.

The KHRC is expected to vote on racing dates at a meeting next Tuesday.

Casino gaming is not legal in Kentucky, but pari-mutuel wagering is allowed. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a law allowing the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to approve and regulate HHR as a pari-mutuel game. That was in response to a state Supreme Court opinion that questioned the legality of the machines, which have been operating at tracks for about a decade.

HHR machines have been cited by racing industry officials and state leaders as helping Kentucky’s thoroughbred and harness tracks boost purses and draw stronger fields for their races.

ECL Corbin will not be the first racing or HHR venture to take advantage of the state’s tax incentive program for major tourism projects. That includes Kentucky Downs. The Franklin-based track is led by Marc Falcone and Ron Winchell, who are partners with Keeneland.

“Thank you for all the support your authority has given us in the Commonwealth… So very much appreciative of all the support, and we look forward to hosting all of you down in Corbin and Williamsburg when we open up next fall,” Falcone told the authority after the vote.

The Williamsburg parlor would be the third near the Tennessee line. It would be within an hour of Knoxville, the third-largest city in the Volunteer State.

The other two, Kentucky Downs and Oak Grove Racing and Gaming, are less than an hour away from Nashville.

“This looks like a great project, and since I work a lot with the (Tennessee Valley Authority) people, I’m going to tell them they have an option out there now,” authority chairman Keith Williams told ECL Corbin representatives at the meeting. “Right up the road from them.”

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