[image url="http://cdn.bloodhorse.com/images/content/cjohnsen_large.jpg"]Corey Johnsen[/image]
On the heels of the recent purchase of majority ownership in Kentucky Downs racetrack by a partnership of Texas investors led by former Lone Star Park president Corey Johnsen and investment banker Ray Reid, Bloodhorse.com is proud to welcome Mr. Johnsen as our guest on a special Friday edition of Talkin' Horses.
Kentucky Downs, located near the Tennessee border in Franklin, Ky., is the only European-style course in the United States. The track offers a menu of turf races run over a mile and five-sixteenths oval--a tradition that continues with next month's six-day fall meet. Running from Sept. 15-25, the event is highlighted by the $500,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Festival Sept. 22, whose four stakes races include the $200,000 Kentucky Cup Turf (gr. IIIT).
Johnsen is a former president of Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie. He and Reid are also Thoroughbred owners and breeders with horses in training in Kentucky, New York, and Florida, as well as Argentina and Uruguay. Johnsen, who has been named president of Kentucky Downs, and Reid are overseeing the ownership transition and expect the current staff to remain in place under the new management. The new owners also promise that Kentucky Downs fans will notice a number of updates in the colonial style clubhouse when the track reopens next month, including an expanded video system and more modern televisions.
"Right now, our crew is working diligently, and we are sparing no expense to ensure our turf course is in top condition," Johnsen commented recently. "The foundation of any race meeting is the track surface."
Welcome to KY! How do you plan to market the race meets at Kentucky Downs to bring in old and new racing fans from surrounding areas? Betsy Baxter
We plan to take a festive approach to our upcoming season. We will offer music, a family playground area, and other forms of entertainment. Admission and parking will be free at Kentucky Downs.
Panama City, FL:
You probably could have been govenor of Texas after securing the Breeders' Cup for Lone Star. What have you got up your sleeve for Kentucky Downs?
Kentucky Downs is a great facility. We plan to market its advantages as America's only European-style race course. Also, we will be more aggressive with our consumer marketing.
Would you consider returning steeplechasing to Kentucky Downs - perhaps a bid for the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase?
Yes. We have had discussions with the steeplechase association about running some races at Kentucky Downs in 2008, and are very interested. That is a great idea about the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase.
Kentucky Downs is currently a TVG exclusive track. The dispute between TVG and TrackNet over signals appears to be coming to a head with horsemen's groups such as Louisiana stating that they will not be held hostage to restricted signal access. The Claiming Crown at Ellis was also a success with open access. Where do you see this going and do you see a resolution on the horizon?
I am a believer in open access to the consumer. But, as an industry, we need to work out an equitable business model for all interested parties, meaning those groups who have a significant investment in the sport. Obviously, this is a very difficult process.
Do you plan on trying to get more racing dates or possibly adding a dirt course?
At this time, Kentucky Downs will work toward its strength which is our unique turf course and short, festival type season.
I hope your condition book has a 5.5 furlong NW1 allowance race for fillies and mares. Best of luck next month. Rick Barton
Our condition book is due out next week, and I will check with our racing secretary. I believe the minimum distance offered six furlongs on the turf.
How did you get started in the breeding end of the business?
I have always dreamed of owning Thoroughbreds and began owning and breeding them in 2002. One of my best friends is Mike Grissom, who is a great horsemen and has a lifetime of experience in the business, and he picked out a number of mares and helped with the matings. I have a few partners, and we now have over 50 horses in Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Argentina, and Uruguay. It is a great sport, and I feel very fortunate to be involved. As a matter of fact, I recently purchased part of Richland Hills, a stallion station and breeding farm in Midway, Kentucky.
You were in the trenches for the Texas fight to try and get alternative gaming. Why can't that get done?
Texas is a very difficult situation. First and foremost, it is a very large state with a strong revenue base, so there is not a dire need for revenue like there is in some states. And, while the horse racing industry is large in Texas, it is not as significant as it is in Kentucky, where it is the signature industry. Also, the horse racing industry in Texas has not done a very good job in reaching out to non-racing breeds and including them in the process and eventual revenue increases. Texas needs to form an organization like KEEP in Kentucky and build from the ground up. Grassroots politics is what is necessary to pass any type of controversial legislation. Finally, the tracks and horsemen need to agree on the business terms of the legislation prior to the next session. I understand some progress is being made in this area.
You seem to be one of the few remaining racing executives not prostituting himself to "gaming." Congratulations. What's wrong with horse racing staying as far away from casino gambling as possible and just running shorter live meets? Before the foolishness of year-around racing got a foothold, meets were much shorter and racing had more fans. Hope you'll do your best to lead a "back-to-the-future" revolution.
I believe in short, meaningful live race meetings whenever possible. Some of the success stories in our business include Keeneland, Del Mar, Saratoga and Oaklawn. They draw large crowds of sports fans and entertainment seekers. We need to introduce those groups to our great sport and develop them as long term fans. Concerning gaming, many times it is necessary to remain competitive. When you manage a track without gaming surrounded by tracks which offer gaming, it is very difficult to compete for horses. The gaming tracks have a distinct advantage because they use a percentage of gaming revenue to fund their purse accounts. I believe the public knows the difference in the quality of racing and will attend or wager as often on the inferior product.
San Antonio, TX:
Would you advise a recent college graduate to seek a career in the racing industry? Many people seem to think the industry is dying. Do you think a racetrack can be successful without slots?
I will start with your last question. I absolutely believe a racetrack can be successful without slots. But, any entertainment and sports facility must be competitive with other forms of entertainment in the marketplace. A perfect example of that is Remington Park. With 94 Indian casinos in Oklahoma, Remington Park had no chance without slot machines. In 2004, legislation was passed allowing Remington Park to be competitive and have slot machines, even though the number of machines and hours were limited. Now, Remington Park is making a big comeback. Revenue from the slot machines has been used to increase purses and update the facility. Also, the marketing budget has increased dramatically. Now, the track and horsemen have a chance to get a fair return on their investment and the Oklahoma horse racing industry is regaining its health after being on life support four about 10 years.
Concerning a career in racing, you need to get a job at a track. It will be an entry level position, but that is okay. You can earn more money in other industries, especially at first, but it is the best way to get started in our business.
What do you feel is holding the U.S. back from 1) Paying more respect and attention to European horses and racing and 2) embracing their style?
The horse racing world is shrinking. I believe that we need to offer more European-style racing, and that our fans will respond in a positive manner. I see more tracks placing an emphasis on turf racing. Also, I believe our fans want to see more long distance turf racing and am hopeful we can expand that area as well.
How can we get more quality horses and more people out in September?
We are working hard on attracting the best quality horses and jockeys possible for our live season which runs from Sept. 15-25. I am confident the quality will be there. Concerning the fans, September is a difficult month to compete with the sports fans attention because of football and baseball. It seems that every college, pro and high school team still has a chance to win a championship, so the enthusiasm and attention is high. And, Major League Baseball is in its pennant chase. It is difficult, but we will do our best to make our races meaningful and compete with the other sports.
Good luck with your newest challenge. I hope Kentucky agrees with you. Don Fontenot
Thank you Don. Best of luck on your new opportunity. It sounds exciting
I have attended live racing at Kentucky Downs twice. I can only attend on the weekend. Driving from Louisville for only 4 or 5 races does not make sense. Any chance you could run an 8 or 9 race card on Saturday? And how about making it a big weekend and running on Sunday as well?
Good point. We have six races on Sept. 22, which is the $500,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Festival. I hope you can attend on that day. We will definitely look at your suggestion in 2008.