FLORENCE, Ky. -- When thoroughbred racehorses, fancy hats and specialty bourbon drinks collide in Kentucky, you know it’s a party.
A month prior to the Run for the Roses, Turfway Park will host its annual $500,000 Horseshoe Casino Spiral Stakes on Saturday, April 2. The event marks the first of the Kentucky Derby prep races that earn thoroughbreds one of the coveted spots in the Derby.
This year’s celebration will include an elaborate VIP tent, both two and four-legged celebrities, and a free hat giveaway for the first 1,000 general admissions.
According to Turfway Park general manager Chip Bach, the event brings out some of the best horses in racing. In 2011, he said, Spiral Stakes winner Animal Kingdom went on to win the Kentucky Derby. He said the event gives guests the chance to experience all the thrills and pageantry of horse racing a lot closer to home.
“The Spiral gives the people of our area, Northern Kentucky, a horse to root for in the Derby,” he said. “It’s always an exciting race to watch. The VIP tent speaks for itself with a couple thousand people who deck out in their Derby gear early.”
This year’s Spiral will mark Harrison resident Debbie Freudiger’s 11th year in the tent. She said the event has become a tradition for her family since she asked her father to go years ago; then, their numbers started growing. Now, she said, they occupy two tables of 10 filled with family and friends who go year after year.
“We’ve never gotten to go to the Derby, because we’re always busy and it’s far away,” she said. “But this is like a little slice of the Derby here. Every year my friend and I plan what we’re going to wear. We really do love it, and we look forward to it every year.”
While the track easily sells the VIP tent to its 2,000-person capacity, Bach said attendance for general admission last year was down. He credits the drop to the $10 per person entry fee, a price point he said was probably too high for families to come out and experience the day. This year, he hopes the $5 admission and kids 12 and under free, along with the Spiral Stakes baseball cap giveaway, will help attract new visitors.
“This year what we really try to do is make a conscious effort to connect with the general public,” Bach said. “We do a great job with the VIP tent, and those people come back every single year, but we really want everyone in the general public to be able to come out and experience the day with us.”
The event always boasts its share of celebrities. This year, Turfway will be bringing in celebrity chef Rich Rosendale , host of television’s "Recipe Rehab" to plan both the VIP tent menu, as well as a number of items in the grandstands.
As an added attraction for guests, Bach said, 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide will be available for photos in the paddock, as well as leading the horses onto the track for the Spiral Stakes.
He said people connect to Funny Cide’s story because it was simply a group of regular guys from New York who bought a racehorse and essentially “caught lightning in a bottle.”
The horse went on to win the Preakness and missed winning the Triple Crown at Belmont by only a couple of lengths.
“This year I guess we can even guarantee that they’ll see a Derby winner,” Bach said. “Funny Cide is a past Derby winner, but that still counts, right?”
Guests will also be able to meet and greet local candidates for the upcoming November elections. A number are planning to attend the event.
Kentucky State Rep. Sal Santoro, R-Florence, said he’s been attending the Spiral Stakes race — he refers to it as the Northern Kentucky Derby — as long as he can remember. Besides being an exciting event, he notes, horseracing is inextricably tied to Kentucky’s economy as both a vital and high-profile industry.
“When you’re in other parts of the U.S. and you tell people you’re from Kentucky, they all think of the horse industry and the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “We have to maintain that and be so proud of our horse industry.”
One of the challenges Kentucky tracks face is increased competition from racinos (tracks with slots) like Belterra Park and Miami Valley Gaming . Revenue from alternate gaming sources allows these tracks to offer higher purse money, ultimately attracting larger fields of horses. In February, legislatures once again introduced a bill to allow expanded gaming for Kentucky tracks, a measure Santoro said is necessary for the health of the industry.
“I know Turfway has struggled with the casinos in Ohio; it’s taken a lot of that market,” he said. “But there’s still something about the race horses and tracks in Kentucky that makes them special, and we need to support them.”
But even big players like Belmont Park in New York saw decreases in both attendance and revenue in 2015. The industry blames a failure to attract new fans to the sport.
To help connect with millennials at Turfway, Bach said, the track brings in popular and up-and-coming bands on Friday and Saturday nights, along with dollar beer, bets and hot dogs . He said there is even a bet squad to tutor novices in how to read data and place wagers.
“What we believe is true about millennials is they like to show off their mental prowess and their analytical skills,” he said. “There’s nothing that presents itself better than horseracing with all the information that’s available — the trending and tracking information. So I think once we get a good amount of millennials involved in the sport, they’re going to love it.”
Yearly fans of the Spiral, like Freudiger and her family, may inspire hope that the sport is passing on generationally. While most in their party simply base their bets on horses’ names or appearances, she said, some are more serious about handicapping each race. She said if people ever have questions about how to place a wager, employees are very patient and happy to help.
“It’s such a neat experience, even if you don’t know anything about betting on horses,” she said. “We’ve always lucked out on the weather — I think there’s only been one year out of the last 10 that it was a little cold. It’s just such a fun and exciting day.”