Kentucky 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 landscape. Kentucky’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 lawmakers in the state have been persistent in efforting the legalization of sports betting.
The latest includes Gov. Andy Beshear, during his State of the Commonwealth in January, announcing his “commitment to the future” by creating new revenue streams in Kentucky. This involves a sports betting bill filed by Rep. Adam Koenig that would also legalize online poker and daily fantasy sports.
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.
Sports betting in Kentucky
The Bluegrass State in 2019 made multiple efforts to legalize sports betting. Of four proposed bills, only Koenig’s advanced through a committee. But that was as far as it got.
This latest bill, House Bill 137, will remove the ban on in-state college wagering while adding an 18-month limit on the in-person requirement for online registration.
That prohibition on betting on Kentucky teams apparently drew the most complaints from legislators and the public alike.
In addition to legalizing online poker and DFS, Kentucky could potentially expand gaming even more by giving the green light for online casinos.
While that remains to be seen, Koenig’s proposal would authorize land-based and online sportsbooks to operate via horse racing tracks and motorsports speedways throughout the state.
The bill has sailed through a state House committee by a vote of 18-0 and is expected to clear the full chamber in due time.
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||www.twinspires.com||Churchill Downs||Pari-Mutuel Wagering, including simulcast|
|Kentucky Lottery||play.kylottery.com||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.
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.
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.
|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|
|Charitable or House-Based Gambling||Yes||Raffles and bingo allowed|
|Minimum Gambling Age||18 for racetracks and lottery|