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Las Vegas businessman Ron Winchell keeps Kentucky Downs on course

5th September, 20:37

Jockey Joe Bravo and horse Real Story head to the track, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, for the $750,000 Tourist Mile horse race in the Runhappy Meet at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky. (Bac Totrong/Daily News via AP)

It seems that I'm not the only Las Vegas resident fixated on Kentucky Downs.

Ron Winchell, a longtime resident of the city, was so taken with the unique racetrack in Franklin, Kentucky, that he decided he needed to buy it.

Winchell should be no stranger to racing fans. He inherited a love of the game from his late father, Verne, founder of the Winchell Donuts chain and an owner and breeder of thoroughbred racehorses.

With his mother, Joan, Ron carried on the family's Winchell Thoroughbreds operation, notching many successes before reaching the pinnacle of the sport through part ownership of the 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner. But the undulating turf-only track near the Tennessee border prompted him to take his participation to a whole new level.

"I raced a couple horses there and was very impressed," he said this week. "The purses and what was going on with historic racing was a sort of catalyst, something I viewed as elevating Kentucky racing to a significant degree."

Winchell, who also runs the Winchell Pub & Grill chain in Nevada, enlisted Marc Falcone, a former Stations Casino executive, formed a new company and bought Kentucky Downs for an undisclosed amount in a sale announced in March.

Now he's experiencing his first meet as a racetrack owner.

Winchell said he's not looking to change the special sauce that his predecessors used to turn the facility into a financial success, i.e. using revenue from year-round simulcasting and the more than 750 historical horse racing machines on site to generate astronomical purses and attract big horses to the track's all-too-brief five-day meet, which concludes on Sept. 12.

But that doesn't mean he will sit on his hands. He and Falcone are planning a major expansion of the facility, with a long-term goal of turning it into a "destination gaming" resort. They also plan to ask the state for two additional racing days to make it a seven-day meeting.

As a racetrack owner he'll also be grappling with the rapid spread of sports betting, which many track operators view as an onrushing plague that will accelerate shrinkage of racing's fan base.

But Winchell says there may be opportunity to introduce new fans already interested in sports betting to horse racing.

"I think the impact still has to be determined, but somebody has to figure out how to make it beneficial," he said. "It's been out there, so it's not like people haven't been illegally gambling for a long time."

#RJhorseracing featured races

The #RJhorseracing handicapping crew also like Kentucky Downs and will scratch and claw to ferret out the winners of Saturday's $1 million Kentucky Turf Cup, a 1 1/2 mile turf test for 3-year-olds and up, and the $1 million Jockey Club Derby Invitational at Belmont Park, another turf marathon exclusively for 3-year-olds.

Check back later Thursday to see how the crowd 'cappers and yours truly size up these races.

Or better yet, there's still time to get involved. Simply download free past performances, courtesy of Equibase, at http://reviewjournal.com/horseracing, suss out the most likely winners and submit your top three picks, via email or Twitter (hashtag #RJhorseracing)

Do it before 5 p.m. and your wisdom will be included in the consensus that appears in Friday's newspaper.

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