Kentucky Guide To Legal Gambling

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KentuckyKentucky presents an interesting case when it comes to online gambling offerings. No other state has such a prohibitive atmosphere and an unmistakable place in the national gambling landscapeKentucky’s gambling laws are as restrictive as those found in other largely conservative states. No casinos exist inside state lines, and numerous bills to allow their introduction have failed.

At the same time, the Bluegrass State is also home to the most prestigious horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby. Pari-mutuel wagering is almost a birthright and can be found at several large tracks throughout the state.

That’s the extent of gambling in Kentucky right now, but an effort to legalize sports betting is picking up steam. A nine-member panel of lawmakers is researching the issue, and a pair of competing bills are already pre-filed for 2019. Expect both the horse racing industry and the state lottery to involve themselves in the conversation.

This is also the place where bourbon whiskey is produced, yet distilleries are often located in dry counties. Many residents cannot even buy the state’s most famous products. Perhaps Kentucky is content to be a place of contradictions.

Online gambling

There is no specific statute in Kentucky that governs online gambling’s legality. However, given the restrictive nature of the state’s laws with regard to gambling in general (basically everything is unlawful except horse racing), it’s a dodgy proposition to engage in online gambling in Kentucky.

There is one gigantic exception. Many states allow gambling under the auspices if said gambling is a function of the state lottery. Hence, many states that outlaw slot machines permit video lottery terminals, which are functionally the same to players. Kentucky has a similar situation, but unsurprisingly, it must funnel its gambling through the horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering carveout in its laws.

So Kentucky does have online gambling of a sort. Churchill Downs operates Twin Spires, a website that allows residents to wager on horse races at the track from the comfort of their home. Twin Spires is even accessible via mobile devices.

Kentucky residents can also play the state lottery online. The state’s lottery website simply advertises the ability to “Play Now” on multi-state drawings offered through the site. In a state without any casinos (even tribal ones), it is startling to find two unabashed gambling sites doing business — one run by the state, no less.

Online gambling operators

Website Site Address Owner Type of Games Offered
Twin Spires Churchill Downs Pari-Mutuel Wagering, including simulcast
Kentucky Lottery State of Kentucky Multi-state prize lotteries, including Mega Millions and Powerball

Social casino options

With no in-state casino options, there are also no options for tie-ins to local casinos through social gaming. The social casino routes are the usual group of offerings. These include: Slotomania, Double Down, Big Fish, and Zynga.

Residents of Northern Kentucky may also be interested in some of the properties that surround the state, in Illinois, Indiana, and West Virginia. Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, offers a Play4Fun network (as do all Hollywood properties) where players can sample games for free.

State casino operator history

As mentioned earlier, there are no casinos of any kind in Kentucky. State law is very explicit in its prohibition. It uses what is known as the “Dominant Factor” theory in its determination of the law. The theory ascribes the mantle of gambling to any game where random chance predominates the outcome over skill. This standard has a carveout for horse racing (which could withstand some argument for skill being the dominant factor – handicapping has plenty of validity) and, somewhat farcically, lottery, which is perhaps the least skillful game in existence.

Horse racing

Nevertheless, Kentucky’s history with gambling as it pertains to horse racing is rich and vibrant. The first horse races in the territory ran in the 1780s in Lexington and Louisville, despite the lack of formal tracks at that time. The horses ran through city parks and, in Louisville’s case, right down Main Street.

The first official track opened in 1805. It wasn’t until 1873, when Meriwether Lewis Clark (grandson of William Clark, the famous explorer) developed a series of races that culminated in the grand finale – a derby, which mimicked similar events in Europe.

Clark’s maternal side of the family, the Churchills, were a prominent Louisville family that owned several acres of land in the area. Clark designed a mile-and-a-quarter-long track on one piece of their land in the southern part of Louisville’s downtown. The track became known as Churchill Downs.

Each year, tens of thousands of people flock to Churchill Downs to view the Kentucky Derby. It is considered the most prestigious horserace in the US, and perhaps the world. The Derby has run each May since 1875 and is the first leg of the Triple Crown. The Derby itself is an event steeped in traditions of old. The men wear suits and ties, and women often wear ornate dresses and humongous hats.

Churchill Downs is one of six racetracks in the state. All the racetracks offer what is known as Instant Racing.  These are machines that allow wagering on historical races and resemble a slot machine. Though none of the other tracks match the renown of Churchill Downs, many are quite well-respected venues in the horse racing community. This is especially true of Keeneland, which has been rated the best thoroughbred track in the US. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Out-of-state casinos

There are also many casinos situated along the borders of Kentucky, particularly on the northern border along the Ohio River. Of significance is Horseshoe Southern Indiana. This casino is, for all intents and purposes, a Louisville casino (separated only by the river itself). Elsewhere, residents of Kentucky also have easy access to Belterra Casino Resort (a mere 80 miles from Lexington), Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack in West Virginia, Rivers Casino in Pennsylvania, and even Rocky Gap Casino in Maryland.

All in all, Kentucky residents have some options available, even without the benefit of homegrown casinos. At this time, no legislation appears forthcoming. A bill introduced in 2016 found no support in the state legislature. But, given the decadence of Kentucky’s horse racing and the proximity to other states, Kentuckians should have no problems finding a good time.

Kentucky racetracks

Track Location Signature Event
Churchill Downs Louisville The Kentucky Derby
Keeneland Lexington Blue Grass Stakes
Turfway Park Florence JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes
Ellis Park Henderson Gardenia Stakes
The Red Mile Lexington The Grand Circuit
Kentucky Downs Franklin Kentucky Turf Cup

State legal environment

  Permitted/Offered? Notes & Restrictions
Land-Based Gambling Yes Pari-mutuel betting on horse racing only
Online Gambling Yes Pari-mutuel and lottery only
Lottery Yes Multi-state drawings
Charitable or House-Based Gambling Yes Raffles and bingo allowed
Minimum Gambling Age 18 for racetracks and lottery
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