FLORENCE, Ky. — For a horse racing facility with a storied past, Tuesday was a day of firsts.
Churchill Downs Incorporated opened the gaming portion of Turfway Park for a VIP night. It was the first time for many to walk into the new $148 million building.
The company bought the racing facility in 2019 for $46 million. Shortly after, demolition of the former grandstands and buildings began. In March 2021, an official groundbreaking took place which Gov. Andy Beshear took part.
"While announcements are great, groundbreakings are fun," Beshear said. "Topping off ceremonies are important. Grand openings mean it’s real. It means the jobs are real."
More than 400 jobs have been created with the opening of Turfway Park.
Florence Mayor Diane Whalen was one of six people who made the first bet on one of the historical racing machines.
“I Kind of equate it to 1976 when we walked into the Florence Mall for the first time," she said. "It’s like Dorothy walking over the hill to the Land of Oz — all of the bright lights, the newness of the place, the excitement we know it’ll bring to the city."
Whalen said she has always viewed Florence as one of Northern Kentucky’s premier retail destinations; however, with shoppers turning more frequently to online sales, she is hoping this type of business can provide a new take for those visiting.
“Find ways to define ourself as a recreation and destination outlet — this adds to the fact that we can add new customers, more residents, more businesses, give them a new different experience,” Whalen added. “We’ve seen an influx of new hotels go up, new restaurants going in. People will benefit from the fact that this is going here.”
Beshear called Turfway Park a ‘first class’ facility. He’s hoping legalizing sports betting will soon follow.
“I’m 100% for sports betting,” Beshear said. "Pushed it every year I’ve been governor and as I was attorney general. Need a few people in the general assembly to come around. There are a whole lot of them here tonight. Hopefully, they like what they see."
How likely is legalizing sports gambling in the Bluegrass State? Beshear said one to two senators are keeping it from happening.
“If we can get through those members of leadership, we can get it done,” he said.
The governor said he has been frustrated at the lack of options for Kentuckians to wager. In Northern Kentucky, he said, he knows taxpayers have chosen in the past to go to casinos in surrounding states.
He’s hoping Turfway Park will change that.
“With a facility like this, we can compete with everyone, but yes, the general assembly has failed to pass sports betting, failed to pass full gaming, failed to pass medical marijuana," said Beshear. "We’re behind the rest of the country on those things. It’s time to catch up."