What’s at Stake

Renderings of Turfway Park by R2A, provided by Churchill Downs Inc.

Churchill Downs is giving back more than ever and furthering its reach in the world of horseracing.

By Mariah Kline

Churchill Downs is known around the world as the home of the Kentucky Derby, but locally, the company is also known for its expanding racing operations as well as its philanthropic efforts. As a longtime partner of March of Dimes Kentuckiana, the corporation is using its resources to benefit the nonprofit and other important causes.

Tonya Abeln. Photo by Antonio Pantoja.

For several years, Churchill Downs has donated valuable packages to the Signature Chefs Auction, the organization’s fundraising event that features more than 30 of our city’s finest local chefs. Prior to the auction, the company hosts the Signature Social at the track, where supporters can learn more about the work of March of Dimes and how the charity helps moms and babies. On a national scale, Churchill Downs assists March of Dimes chapters throughout the country by donating Derby experience packages to those who normally wouldn’t have access to tickets. In exchange, these chapters then donate valuable prizes to the Kentuckiana chapter.

“It’s our way of being able to affect March of Dimes all over the country but then bring something back for our local chapter,” explains Tonya Abeln, vice president of corporate communications and president of the Churchill Downs Foundation. “As we look at the statistics of premature birth, we understand that it’s an increasing need that we want to support.”

Abeln and several other Churchill Downs team members have personally experienced the life-changing effects of premature birth. Abeln’s son Luke, now five years old, was born at 29 weeks and spent almost three months in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“He really benefited from some of the research that was made possible through March of Dimes,” she explains. “You never think that these things will happen to you, and then when they do, you realize how important these causes are.”

In addition to supporting several local and regional nonprofits like the March of Dimes, the company makes a significant impact through the Churchill Downs Foundation. This arm of their charitable giving supports industry-related causes such as the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Backside Learning Center and Thoroughbred aftercare initiatives. Abeln explains that the foundation’s mission has also recently expanded to include helping the neighborhoods of South Louisville in which the track operates.

“There is so much energy and legacy and history with those neighbors,” she says. “We want to do what we can to support them and their needs. … There are times when our projects are focused on our business, but now we’re looking into how we can help the neighbors around us and be able to offer something to them that’s worthwhile.” 

By Derby 2020, the company will have completed an $8 million expansion of the track’s backside, which will include an equine medical center, three quarantine barns for visiting international horses and increased security. The corporation is also expanding across the state with the recently-opened Oak Grove Racing and Gaming in Western Kentucky and the recently-acquired Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky.

Renderings of Oak Grove by R2A, provided by Churchill Downs Inc.

“We are thrilled to welcome Turfway Park to the Churchill Downs racing family,” says Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs Race Track. “Our team is poised to restore Turfway to its former glory, anchored by Northern Kentucky’s first historical racing machine facility. The result will be a first-class racing product fueled by increased purses that keeps high-quality horses in Kentucky year-round and appeals to horseplayers nationwide.”

Races at the Oak Grove facility have already begun, and construction of the gaming facility and hotel are currently in progress. In Florence, the company anticipates the creation of up to 400 jobs and around 800 construction opportunities at Turfway Park. As Churchill Downs aims to positively impact the state’s economy and the racing landscape in Kentucky, the corporation maintains its focus on giving back to the community.

“Part of what we want to do includes our community outreach and our corporate social responsibility,” says Abeln. “We want to be able to donate money and sponsor events as much as possible, but we also want to provide opportunities for people to come to Churchill Downs racetrack and be able to use that product as a platform to raise money for themselves.” V

For more information on Churchill Downs, visit churchilldowns.com or call 502.636.4400.

The Signature Chefs Auction will take place on Nov. 14 at the Omni Hotel Louisville. Visit signaturechefs.marchofdimes.org/louisville or call 502.473.6682 to purchase tickets
and learn more.