At the Red Mile, horse racing’s ‘evolution’ looks like a casino

September 26, 2015
Instant racing machines in Lexington's first legal gambling parlor at Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

Instant racing machines at the Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram


I went to the Red Mile last week to check out what the 140-year-old harness track calls “The Evolution of Horse Racing.”

It was sunny and mild, the kind of afternoon I hope for each April and October so I can slip away to Keeneland for a few hours. I love to watch the horses run, place a few bets and soak up the atmosphere.

This afternoon, the weather didn’t matter. Horse racing had evolved indoors. I found a cavernous hall filled with 902 machines that flashed and chimed amid pulsing background music.

The man at the front desk said this $42 million facility had been busy since it opened Sept. 12. I must have caught a lull. There were only a couple of dozen patrons, an even mix of men and women, blacks and whites. Most were older than me. A few had canes; at least two used walkers.

The next thing I noticed was there were no horses. Amazing! Horse racing had evolved to the point that horses were no longer necessary.

When I walked in, the man at the front desk issued me a “rewards” card on a red lanyard, an instruction sheet and a $5 voucher. I chose a machine with a comfy seat near the bar and got started.

That’s when I saw horses, or at least grainy images of them. They were in videos that flashed briefly on the machine’s tiny screen after I placed a bet and pushed a few buttons.

The machines looked like slots. The hall looked like a casino. I had to remind myself that this joint venture of the Red Mile and Keeneland was really The Evolution of Horse Racing, presumably “as it was meant to be.”

What distinguishes these machines from slots, proponents say, is that they are forms of pari-mutuel wagering, and winners are chosen by the outcome of thousands of previously run horse races rather than by random number generators.

I placed a bet on the machine and chose my numbers — the order of finish for three horses that once raced against one another. To help me choose, I could look at charts indicating past performances of the horse, jockey and trainer.

I lost my first couple of free voucher dollars trying to figure out how the machine worked. On my third bet, lights flashed and bells clanged and the machine told me I was a winner. I printed a voucher and discovered I had won $84, although I’m not sure how.

I tried a couple more machines before deciding it was a good time to cash my voucher and call it a day.

The Family Foundation, a conservative activist group, has gone to court to challenge the legality of these “historical racing” machines. The case before Franklin Circuit Court is complex, and it likely will take a couple of years to decide.

The legal question comes down to whether these machines are pari-mutuel wagering, which is legal in Kentucky, or slots, which are not. Can something that looks and quacks like a duck actually be an evolved horse?

If the tracks lose in court, they may have recovered their investment by then. The General Assembly also could change the law. Legislators may not want to give up this new source of tax revenue, not to mention the 200 new jobs at the Red Mile and more at facilities near Henderson and Franklin.

I have nothing against gambling, when it is enjoyed responsibly by people who can afford it. But from a public policy standpoint, gambling encourages a “something for nothing” mentality among politicians and voters that a modern, progressive state can be created without raising anyone’s taxes.

Many horse people argue that expanded gambling revenue is essential to the survival of their industry. I understand their concern. Without the promise of this new facility, the Red Mile probably would have been redeveloped years ago. Neither harness nor Thoroughbred racing are as popular as they once were.

However, the experiences of other states show that when expanded-gambling revenue starts flowing, politicians lose interest in subsidizing the horse industry.

There are no easy answers to preserving Kentucky’s signature horse industry. But horsemen could take pointers from the once-struggling and now-thriving bourbon whiskey industry: Improve your product and do a better job of marketing to make it more popular.

Otherwise, it can be a fine line between evolution and devolution.

Raising money to repair Floral Hall, Lexington’s historic ’round barn’

October 2, 2012

Floral Hall was designed and built by John McMurtry in 1882. Photos by Tom Eblen


Floral Hall is one of Lexington’s most- photographed landmarks.During the past 130 years, the octagon-shaped building on Red Mile Road just off South Broadway has housed gardeners and gamblers, doughboys and some of America’s best trotting horses.

Many people assume Floral Hall is owned by the city, state or the adjacent Red Mile harness track. They would be wrong.

The Stable of Memories Inc., a non-profit foundation, has been the hall’s custodian since the early 1960s, struggling to keep it beautiful. The hall now houses American Standardbred horse memorabilia and an equine archives. It also is rented for events.

“It’s like any old house,” said Kit Glenn McKinley, president of the foundation and owner of R.E. Fennell Co., a 110-year-old tack and leather goods shop beside Floral Hall. “It always needs something.”

In recent years, the foundation has spent $47,000 to restore the cupola and $12,000 to recondition the three-story brass chandelier that hangs in the center of the barn. Now, the foundation is trying to raise $87,000 to replace rotting wooden support beams and make other structural improvements.

The foundation will hold an auction to raise money before the 120th Kentucky Futurity races at The Red Mile on Sunday.

“Our goal is to educate people about this building,” McKinley said. “We want everyone to know about it and enjoy it.”

John McMurtry, a noted 19th-century Lexington architect and builder, designed and constructed Floral Hall in 1880-82. It was commissioned by the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical Association to serve as a floral exhibition hall for what was then the local fairgrounds.

Lexington’s fairgrounds had been at Maxwell Spring on what is now the University of Kentucky campus, but it was heavily damaged by Union troops during the Civil War. After the war, the federal government paid the association $25,000 in damages. The money was used to buy new fairgrounds land where The Red Mile is now, and $5,000 went toward Floral Hall’s construction.

The building was designed so flower arrangements could be displayed in tiers along the walls. Judges could stand in the center and compare entries without having to wear out their necks.

Trotting horse races were held at the fairgrounds beginning in 1875. And because Floral Hall was then just outside Lexington’s city limits, bookmakers moved there from the downtown Phoenix Hotel when the city outlawed gambling.

The Kentucky Trotting Horse Breeders Association took over ownership of the fairgrounds in 1896, creating what is now known as The Red Mile track. The exhibit hall was converted into stables, and the distinctive cupola was added.

Horses were sheltered on the first and second floors — the high-steppers apparently had little trouble climbing a ramp — and grooms slept on the third floor. During World War I, the horses were replaced by doughboys as the barn became a military barracks.

But by 1960, Floral Hall was in sad shape. The wooden third floor and cupola were gone, as was much of the roof. A group of horse industry leaders created the foundation, which assumed control of the building and a slim three-foot buffer of real estate around it.

The third floor and cupola were rebuilt after wooden support beams in the center of the barn were replaced with steel. When Lyndhurst mansion, a McMurtry design from the 1860s west of Rose Street between High and Maxwell streets, was demolished in the mid-1960s, the three-story brass chandelier from its rotunda was hung in the center of Floral Hall.

Since then, the old barn has housed a collection of sulkies, carriages and other Standardbred horse memorabilia. Two finished rooms on the second floor contain trophies, paintings and books chronicling the breed’s history.

The barn’s dirt floor was paved two decades ago, making it a better location for receptions and other events. The Red Mile handles leasing arrangements.

“There are probably a thousand paintings of the round barn because it’s just such a gorgeous building,” said Richard Stone of Sadieville, a foundation member. “Whether you’re interested in horses or not, this is a beautiful landmark that we don’t want to be lost.”

If you go

Fund-raiser for Floral Hall

What: Before the 120th Kentucky Futurity races at The Red Mile, the foundation overseeing Floral Hall will host silent and live auctions at the site.

When: 10 a.m. Oct. 7

Where: The building is adjacent to The Red Mile, 1200 Red Mile Rd., Lexington.

Cost: Admission is free, and all proceeds go toward the building’s restoration project.

Learn more: Floral Hall is open to visitors this fall from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays or by appointment. Call (859) 254-2814 for details.


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The best show in Lexington on Saturday night

November 29, 2009

Having seen too many disappointing Kentucky-Tennessee football games, I decided the best show in town Saturday night would be at historic Floral Hall at The Red Mile. I was right.

Lexington’s Ben Sollee, an amazing musician and songwriter who is going to be really famous one of these days, was playing with collaborator Daniel Martin Moore at a benefit for Institute 193, a creative little (and I do mean little) art gallery at 193 Limestone St.

Sollee is a classically trained cellist, but sings and plays the instrument like nobody else you’ve ever heard. He mostly performs his own music, a combination of folk, jazz, bluegrass and R&B.

More than 100 people were there, and it was a terrific night of music in one of Lexington’s classic small venues. About the only illumination was Christmas twinkle lights wrapped around the octagon-shaped building’s central support posts, which made for a lovely atmosphere (and difficult photography).

For more about the musicians, go to and  To learn more about Institute 193, go to

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