Before young people flocked to Churchill Downs’ night racing cards, Turfway Park brought out the party crowd with its dollar beer nights, complete with local bands.
Before any other Kentucky track caught on to the demands of a changing business model, Turfway Park opened a state-of-the-art simulcast area in 1994 with big screen televisions, well-lit betting carrels with their own monitors, and easily accessible tellers and machines.
Before Toyota sponsored the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, Jim Beam sponsored the Spiral Stakes (G3) at Turfway—followed by sponsors Galleryfurniture.com, Lane’s End, Vinery, a Cincinnati casino, and now Jeff Ruby Steaks.
While the ever-changing sponsor of Turfway’s biggest race is always good for a chuckle from race fans, the track most assuredly has been an innovator. In a state that includes two of the world’s best-known tracks, Keeneland and Churchill Downs, Turfway has been the smaller brother—with the winter race dates—that’s been willing to try some new things to thrive; or survive.
In recent years the emphasis has been on survival, but because long-delayed plans to add historical racing finally appear to be moving forward, the Northern Kentucky track in the Cincinnati market will have an opportunity to address its most glaring problem: a grandstand in need of an overhaul. Turfway Park general manager Chip Bach said owner JACK Entertainment plans a $25 million renovation that will see the addition of 500 historical racing machines.
That investment will benefit racing in that it will include a new simulcast area, upgrades throughout the facility, and a new entry that will improve access.
Bach outlined the plans the evening of Feb. 23 when Turfway celebrated “Latonia Days,” a weekend that brought back about a dozen popular riders, including Patricia Cooksey and Tony D’Amico, and saw a historical display largely supplied by Jim Claypool, author of “The Tradition Continues: The Story of Old Latonia, Latonia, and Turfway Racecourses,” celebrating the track’s history, including the former cathedral that was the original Latonia.
When the current Turfway opened, it too initially carried the name Latonia before Jerry Carroll purchased the track in 1986 and re-christened it. Turfway hit its stride in the 1990s, with the Spiral winners including eventual classic victors Summer Squall, Hansel, Lil E. Tee, and Prairie Bayou, not to mention champion filly Serena’s Song.
In its recent struggles Turfway has lost its September meet, which at one time had featured Kentucky Cup day, with its impressive list of winners such as Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Vindication, Boston Harbor, Spain, and in the most exciting race in Turfway history, the dead-heat between Silver Charm and Wild Rush in the 1998 Kentucky Cup Classic (G3).
Longtime track announcer Mike Battaglia recalled these races during the Latonia Days dinner. He noted the thrill it was to see the vision of his father, former general manager John Battaglia, of a major Derby prep at Turfway become a reality.
Carroll, who owned the track from 1986-99, attended the Latonia Days dinner and enjoyed the night of memories. He was cautiously optimistic historical gaming could allow an improved facility and future innovation. He said it was difficult for him to walk around and see how much the facility has fallen behind.
“I walked around here quite a bit tonight, and most everything was put in place while I was here,” Carroll said. “It needs new investment.”
Bach acknowledges the criticism and on a night Turfway celebrated its impressive past, he expressed optimism for the track while standing next to a sparkling artist’s rendering of that vision.
“When I first started, I thought this was a rough-looking building, and that was 18 years ago and it hasn’t changed,” Bach said. “Being responsible for the racetrack, I hold as a high honor. This is a Kentucky racetrack. We have a lot to prove to get ourselves back.
“It’s my job, the job of our staff, and our owners to get this place on the right rail and be something everyone’s proud of.”