Coach Neil Pessin knows a thing or two about Kentucky Downs. In the early 1990s, Pessin raced there for three years. His father, Dr. Arnold Pessin, designed and built Kentucky Downs. Known for its large fields, low drawout rates and jaw-dropping payouts as much as its three bends, uphill and downhill stretches, this unique track operates for seven days each September, and horse players are always looking to decipher its code.
This piece has nothing to do with what we saw in the United States. What inspired your father to design it in the European style?
To move as little dirt as possible. What made it do it that way was because that’s how the earth stretched out. We had to move some dirt, of course, but he wanted to do as little as possible, so that’s how the course was laid out. He just wanted to do as little excavation as possible to get the layout of a racetrack. So it ended up being almost a mile and a half race track with some fun turns.
The main reason it was built was because of slot machines. The idea was to run the track down there and then run the slots through. The gas station at the exit was at one time the number one place in the United States for selling lottery tickets, as many came from Tennessee across the border.
Has he designed other courses?
It’s the only one he did. But he had other ideas. He was very creative and always had thoughts. It was he who gave John Gaines the idea of the Breeders’ Cup. It was he who had the idea for the Kentucky Horse Park, originally. He built the Thoroughbred Training Center at Paris Pike to try and do summer night runs in Lexington. In fact, the training facility was Fasig-Tipton’s first location in Kentucky.
What are some of the ideas Kentucky Downs horse players would benefit from knowing?
There are ideas to that. Like, once a jock learns to ride there. We went to the first meet and told all the sports guys to drop your irons a notch or two. Do not ride as usual. Because their heads will fall a bit on this course just because of the natural lay of the land, not because they trip or anything like that, but because it’s an up and down course. If you have your irons where they normally would, you’ll feel like you’re going to fall. So you drop your irons, you give them their heads, and you let them run.
The European riders knew how to do it from the start. That’s why you see Florent Geroux, Flavien Prat, these runners are all good there. And American riders are learning to do well there now because they’ve had enough years on it. The key is to drop your irons a notch or two and give them their head.
But speed is beneficial there, it doesn’t always have to win, but speed is always good.
And the outside isn’t bad – because the horse draws the 12 hole, you don’t throw it away like on some tracks. There, the outside can be beneficial, especially in case of short. If the jock doesn’t know that lane and stays on the rail, he’s going to run into that bend that’s almost stopping you from going around because he’s going in and out. If you’re not in all three paths when you get there, you’re about to check your horse.
Most of them know it now, but at first many of them didn’t. It’s little idiosyncrasies like that. I think most riders know how to ride it because they’ve been there a few times.
What about pedigree angles?
It’s a matter of preference, and the only way to find out is to run them. You can’t say, oh, well, he was raised to like it because like Cigar, he was raised to like grass, but he didn’t. But he liked dirt. Kentucky Downs is just another surface. Whether they like it or not, you’ll know when you execute them. But that’s one of the reasons you get a lot of longshots there because they only run nine days a year, so you don’t have a lot of horses coming back there often.
So finding horses that have raced there and done well before is key?
You might have a horse that ran a race there and didn’t do well, but it might not be feeling great that day. He may have come down with something and not shipped well. It could have been a number of things – he didn’t run well the first time, maybe he didn’t have a good trip. It was cut and it was not in PP. Often you get good prices there.
Basically, you need to run a nice strong horse there. As long as he’s healthy and doesn’t have any health issues, there’s really no way to know for sure about that in terms of betting prospect. I can tell you if my horse runs there or somewhere else, you can bet there’s nothing wrong with him. Especially there, because it’s an up and down course, you just want to make sure there are no problems ahead.
What about the horses coming out of the races at Kentucky Downs, any ideas there?
If a horse runs well at Kentucky Downs or even just at Kentucky Downs, it will run well on its next start no matter where it is. Maybe even better than usual. We followed that for the first two years, and it was amazing how well these horses from Kentucky Downs were getting to Keeneland. Most of them exceed their chances.
Mentally, it’s more like being at a fair than a racetrack. There is not a huge grandstand. It’s open, there’s not much around the racecourse. It’s almost like running on the field for them, and it’s a good atmosphere, and I think it’s good for them too. Plus, the track gives them a certain level of fitness, and when they run somewhere else, they’re like, oh, that’s easy. If a horse matches the state you are racing it in, then it has a good chance of exceeding its odds if it comes from Kentucky Downs.
Does the grass get long and play a bit more like a European course?
It all depends on the weather. The main reason to move the rail is so you don’t chew the same spot so much and put it where it’s hard. At Kentucky Downs, all races are run there. The grass there, they probably let grow longer than most. You will almost see it fall. The bottom line is that jocks give their horses head. Some horses will handle it, some won’t. The top to bottom part of it. That’s why they get longshots there because you have horses that didn’t like the other tracks but are enjoying it, and vice versa. It’s like any other surface. Some horses like dirt, some horses like Fair Grounds turf, some horses like Keeneland turf. It’s like tennis players, some do well on clay, others on grass — different players like different surfaces. Even running athletes – some do well on outdoor tracks and some do well on indoor tracks.
How does rail transport work?
It’s their preference on the position of the rail, whatever they want to do. Probably how they like it done is to start the rail and move it around. But either way, it’s fine. It’s a very wide track, so they can move the rail two or three times if they want to in different places.
If they move the rail a lot, that also tends to help speed horses. Although, with the turn of the Kentucky Downs, you don’t mind losing so much ground because of the way it’s done. It doesn’t bother a horse too much of his game if he goes 13 wide. They all run the same way in this lap.
Does the rain affect the course in any unique way?
It depends on how much rain they get. A little rain actually helps. This will not affect the race in any way. This will make the ground so it’s not just very hard. Rain helps more than any type of sprinkler system you install on any grass course. If they get tons of rain it can get dangerous as the water will pool and become slippery and muddy and you won’t want to run over them. If it receives an average amount of rain, it affects the way a horse runs on it, but in the same way as preferences for yield or good turf.
Do you race there?
I’ve been known to make a bet or two.
Do you structure your tickets differently playing Kentucky Downs than other tracks?
It depends on the race itself. I don’t gamble big except on my horses because I know how they are doing so if I can single out one of my horses and then lay it out in other races either Pick 4 or Pick 5 or trifectas, exactly. When you have a horse you can grab, or even two horses, you can spread out a bit more than you would in other places. You can get good payouts there because everyone is scattered everywhere.
I like to play Pick 4s, exacta, and win and show bets. You need to be able to grab one horse in one race or two horses in two races and then split.
Do you play different angles there than the other songs?
I will include some jockeys. The horse must always be a living horse. You must be able to understand the horse somehow. Whether they have speed or have raced there well before. I will include some athletes who I know have done very well in the course. Like Joel Rosario, Geroux, Prat.
And Vincent Cheminaud? It rolls so well and could sneak up on some people.
He comes from a European riding style, he has done well in the big races, and I think he will adapt to that quite quickly. I’ll keep an eye on him because he has to learn the course. He’s not one I would throw away – I’ll put it this way.
Do coaches use the course to participate in a race, but not necessarily to win? Since it is such a unique track, it seems like all the horses would be kicked off and pointed towards the races.
For the most part, I think people target these encounters and try to prepare for them. The money is better than anywhere else in the country. If you want to give your horse a run, for me this is not the place to do it. Do it wherever you are. Unless it’s on a schedule for something you’re planning later, it fits in perfectly, and the race is there, so you can do it. But just to go there with a beginner or something like that, for me it’s not the place to do it. When you go there, you better think you have a chance.