What goes around, comes around!

March 12, 2002 9:29 AM
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THAT MAGIC TOUCH! Jerry Carroll, the developer who used his magic wand to turn Latonia Race Course into an attraction, now has casinos on his mind for Northern Kentucky.

There’s plenty of irony in the yarn. Go back a few decades. The Northern Kentucky racetrack ”” with plenty of big shots in its corner ”” could not compete with casinos (illegal ones, of course) that dotted the landscape from Covington south. The track began to fade in the backstretch. A prominent Californian named Frank Bishop ”” through the urging of Frank Tours ”” bought the financially troubled racing center and tried to turn it around. When Bishop died the track was still not living up to expectations.

Buffalo’s bottom fisherman, Jerry Jacobs, came along. He stocked all the concession stands with hot dogs and soft drinks and went to work on the legislature to allow night racing.

When the lights came on, Latonia came to life.

For a while everything was going great. But, Jacobs was only interested in taking money out of his investment, not putting money in. By 1986 the physical plant was in a dilapidated state and the quality of racing was low-class, attracting very few fans.

Along came Jerry Carroll, a real estate developer with a flair for promotions. He took Latonia off Jacobs’ hands, changed the name of the track to Turfway Park and spent millions of dollars improving the plant and the quality of racing.

Carroll was a success. By 1988 Turfway was recognized as the “fastest growing racetrack in America” by the Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA). Carroll was also credited with creating the $600,000 Jim Beam Stakes, which became a major stepping-stone for three-year-olds on the road to the Triple Crown.

However, with the growth of legalized casino gambling through midwestern riverboats in the 1990s, Turfway Park was in trouble again. By 1999 Carroll and his partners ­­decided to get out of the pari-mutuel business. They ­­focused their energies on auto racing through the building and operation of a motor sport facility ”” Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky.

Turfway’s new buyer was a three-way partnership involving Keeneland Race Course, which became the track operator; GTECH Corp. (GTK) and Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. (HET).

The threesome has been actively lobbying for pending legislation that would put slot machines in Kentucky racetracks. If they can convince the governor that the concept doesn’t have to go before the people during the fall elections, they could possibly get their needed shot in the arm as early as this summer. If they need to wait for the vote of the populace they will have to try to survive until sometime next year.

In the meantime, Carroll has been working on a plan of his own. He has proposed building a casino mega-center with partner Bill Butler of Corporex, owner of the River Center Towers in Covington. It would be a stand-alone, full-blown casino in the heart of Northern Kentucky.

So, the Kentuckians who have long fought against ­­casinos are now trying to put gambling at Turfway Park. But, if Carroll gets out of the gate first with his casino mega-center, Turfway could finish up the track.