Cumberland Run opens to rave reviews

The ribbon cutting before Cumberland Run’s inaugural race. Carrie Mattingly photo

CORBIN, Ky. — The biggest winner on Cumberland Run’s inaugural 10-race harness program Sunday was the track itself, according to those in attendance as live horse racing came to southeastern Kentucky for the first time.

“I think the track is great,” said Hall of Fame driver David Miller, who won three races, including the first race. “The horses seem to get over it really well, and the facility itself is really nice.”

Miller said the opening of Cumberland Run is “very important” for the harness-racing industry. “We’re looking at tracks closing in other states. For Kentucky to invest in three harness tracks now, I think it’s wonderful. The program here is just unbelievable.”

Miller won two of the four $30,000 Kentucky Sire Stakes races, and coincidentally the two trophy presentations. He drove favored Jules Hill to victory in the track’s first race, for 2-year-old filly pacers, with Cumberland Run’s managing partners Ron Winchell and Marc Falcone presenting a horse blanket commemorating the occasion and a crystal decanter to the winners.

Miller returned four races later to win the Kentucky Sire Stakes for 2-year-old colt and gelding pacers with another favorite in the Ron Burke-trained Steely Knife. This time Winchell and Falcone joined Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who arrived around 2:30, in the winner’s circle. Ted Nicholson, the Mint Gaming properties’ vice president for racing, handed Beshear a Reba McEntire-signed guitar to present to Miller as the trophy.

“I tell you right now, I think that is the greatest trophy I’ve ever gotten,” Miller said. “And I’ve won some very big races.”

After weeks of spectacular weather, the temperature never got out of the mid-50s, with drizzle and sunshine taking turns. But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd, some of whom had never before been to a horse track before. The track staged a one-day carnival featuring rides and games for kids to celebrate opening day.

“We’ve enjoyed watching it for sure,” said Elizabeth Hendrickson of Corbin, who with her husband, Zack, brought their young children to see horse racing for the first time. “It’s awesome.”

“It will give people more things to do around here,” Zack said.

Corbin — which has the  distinction of residing in three counties in Knox, Whitley and Laurel — has worked live horse racing for 20 years. The festivities started out with a ceremonial ribbon cutting before the first race, with the participants including Corbin Mayor Suzie Razmus; Knox County Judge Executive Mike Mitchell; Whitley Judge Executive Pat White Jr.; Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer; Kentucky Rep. Tom O’Dell Smith of Corbin; Bruce Carpenter, executive director of the  Corbin Economic Development Agency and the Southern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; and Henry Graffeo, general manager of Cumberland Run and its satellite property The Mint Gaming Hall Cumberland in Williamsburg.

“This has been a road we have been on for many, many years and we’re finally here,” Mayor Razmus said. “I just so appreciate Ron and Marc, Henry and the gang for all that they’ve done. We’re looking forward to many years of good times right here on this hill.”

Rep. Smith thanked the Kentucky General Assembly’s leadership for making a horse track possible in his region after the lawmakers passed legislation in 2021 that protected historical horse racing (HHR)- the electronic gaming that is the economic engine for the commonwealth’s flourishing racetracks and their economic development.

“The vision has become reality,” Smith said. “And the future of horse racing in Kentucky couldn’t be any brighter.”

Senator Thayer called Cumberland Run “the final piece of the puzzle for Kentucky’s new standardbred racing circuit, from April at Oak Grove to the Red Mile in Lexington and now to Corbin. The ecosystem that this track is going to support is monumental. Other states are closing down tracks. Here in Kentucky we’re building new ones. This is a great new opportunity to create jobs and infrastructure here in this part of Kentucky.”

Glitches go hand and hand with the opening of any property, but Cumberland Run’s launching went off remarkably smooth, Nicholson said.

“Great crowd. Young crowd,” he said. “All and all, wonderful. The governor was here. Damon Thayer was here. We’ve had fun entertaining a lot of new people. Honestly, it exceeded my expectations, and that’s not easy to do.”

Racing continues Monday with a 1 p.m. first post. The meet runs Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays through Nov. 7.

What they’re saying:

Gov. Andy Beshear: “What a great day for Corbin and this area… When you think about what this racetrack, as well as the facility (The Mint Gaming Hall Cumberland in Williamsburg) just down the road mean: $155 million invested in this area and 200 great new jobs for our people. I want to thank this entire ownership group — Ron Winchell, Marc Falcone and everybody else who have chosen to invest in us… To our county judge and so many others, our legislators, I want to thank them for passing the necessary legislation … that has our horse industry at a level we’ve never seen before, with bigger purses and more investment than we’ve ever seen. It is a truly exciting time for the region. I’m really excited to be here on Day One.”

Mike Tanner, CEO of the U.S. Trotting Association, which oversees harness racing in America: “It’s cool, pretty amazing what they’ve done here, kind of carved (the track) out of the natural topography. It’s got the feel of a fair meet but with really good horses. I talked to a bunch of people from Corbin. They’re very excited about what’s happening here. It’s great for the sport; it’s great for Kentucky. It’s another stop in this burgeoning Kentucky circuit.”

Austin Withrow of Corbin, who came to the races with his family and friends: “It’s a big opportunity for the area, bringing in a lot of jobs. Just opening up a new environment and space. We’ve never had anything like this in Corbin. Especially the last couple of years, with Covid hitting. They’ve shut down pretty much everybody. I think this is the beginning for a whole new tradition for Corbin.”

Owner-trainer Rob Laffoon of Georgetown, Ky.: “I really enjoyed racing here today. The track was really good. They’ve done a wonderful job getting it prepared. Having this track is major. It gives us more months of racing, more chances to make money. It’s going to benefit us Kentucky guys greatly.”

Ron Burke, North America’s all-time leading standardbred trainer in wins and purse earnings: “It’s been a great experience, especially the track. The track is in wonderful shape. For a first-time track, it’s unbelievable. The people all seem to enjoy being here. I had a great time.”