Forget Vegas. For those in Cincinnati inclined to games of chance, there are no fewer than four casinos, three racinos, thousands of slot machines, and three horse tracks within an hour’s drive of downtown. If those aren’t enough wagering options, there’s the lure of three statewide lotteries and their assorted scratch-offs, games, and jackpots; Keno drawings nearly around the clock; and innumerable bingo nights.
Looming over it all is the newest way to gamble: betting on sports contests, legal in Indiana since 2019 and expected to get the legislative green light soon in Ohio. And those are just the legal opportunities.
ILLUSTRATION BY ZACHARY GHADERI
Americans pour billions of dollars into these entertainments every year. It’s never been easier to part with one’s hard-earned money or—depending on one’s predilection—reap a lucky windfall. And this ultra-competitive, three-state gambling scene is about to get even more cutthroat.
Two of the country’s leading purveyors of gaming and its associated entertainments are investing hundreds of millions in new facilities, amenities, restaurants, games, and other diversions across Greater Cincinnati. Internationally known Hard Rock has brought its rock and roll themed vibe to Cincinnati to inject new life and dollars downtown. And Churchill Downs, known for the iconic twin spires of its Louisville racetrack and for the world’s most famous horse race, is overhauling Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky.
Choose your betting metaphor, but the emergence of these heavyweights will certainly up the ante and raise the stakes among those vying to capture bigger shares of the gambling jackpot here. The pandemic presented a temporary, even minor, slowdown in the amount of money chanced at these attractions. But wallets and credit cards are opening up again, and the race is on to cash in.
“Cincinnati is an extremely competitive market,” says Jay Masurekar, who leads Key Bank’s gaming and travel investment banking practice. “It’s the most competitive market in Ohio, probably in the Midwest.”
Hard Rock International has officially been running the downtown casino for nearly two years, taking over from Jack Entertainment in late 2019. A $745 million deal delivered the Florida-based entertainment giant a casino that, pre-pandemic, accounted for $207 million in annual revenue. “We saw some room to grow,” says George Goldhoff, president of Hard Rock Cincinnati. “We believed there was upside to this casino.”
Over the 12 months that ended in April, gaming revenue in Ohio rose nearly 4 percent, Masurekar says. But revenue at the Cincinnati casino was down almost 10 percent during that time. Partly slowed by the pandemic, the marketing and promotions that Hard Rock usually brings to the table were delayed for months. “Everything was put on hold,” says Goldhoff, adding that things are about to change.
The assets and memorabilia Hard Rock is known for have been added here in the past few months. Hard Rock’s signature 28-foot-tall, lighted guitar was installed at the front entrance. Rock costumes (including a gown worn by Lady Gaga), a Porsche once owned by Eddie Van Halen, Nikki Sixx’s motorcycle, and signature guitars are displayed throughout. The center bar has been redecorated with outfits worn by one of the most famous bands of all time, KISS.
Hard Rock Cincinnati President George Goldhoff
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY HARD ROCK CASINO
Goldhoff’s résumé includes three years in the 1990s as general manager of the Rainbow Room, the famed private club at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, so he brings expertise in food and entertainment to this venture. A Hard Rock Café, the restaurant that launched the company 50 years ago, is inside. The facility’s steakhouse has been transformed to Hard Rock’s brand, Council Oak Steaks and Seafood. New restaurants include Brick’d, serving Neapolitan pizza, and YOUYU, an Asian noodle bar.
The dining scene is Hard Rock’s not-so-secret secret sauce. “Hard Rock is not like a typical gaming company,” Masurekar says. “They like to bring in more non-gaming amenities.”
The emotional draw of rock nostalgia from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s creates an edge over its competitors. “That’s difficult to replicate,” says Masurekar.
Friday through Sunday, Hard Rock Café features live entertainment. The upstairs event space was rebranded as Hard Rock Live, a music venue that can hold about 1,700 people. Its Rock Shop is open, with T-shirts, hats, pins, jewelry, and other merch for sale. A Hard Rock hotel is also under consideration for the site.
But there’s no mistaking where the real money is. “The bulk of everything we do comes from gaming,” says Goldhoff. Stop in for the burgers and the rock and roll, stay for the slots.
Because it’s a privately held company, Hard Rock International does not break out its revenue sources. But Penn National Gaming, a competitor that owns Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, as well 41 other properties in 20 states, does. More than 80 percent of its $5.3 billion in revenue in pre-pandemic 2019 came from gambling; less than 20 percent came from its customers buying food, drinks, and hotel rooms.
For the gamblers, the Hard Rock casino offers 1,650 slot machines, including more than 250 new ones. “They were really needed,” Goldhoff says. “We needed new product. We heard it loud and clear from our guests.”
Eighty-four table games are available, including 30 poker tables. Its covered smoking patio has been outfitted with slots as well as table games, and Goldhoff says it’s the only casino in Ohio to offer smokers the chance to play while indulging both their habits.
“We believe in a year or two they will be the No. 1 property in the [Cincinnati] market,” says Masurekar. “They will dominate, knowing how efficient these guys are.”
Hard Rock also brings a bit of the Indian gaming phenomenon to Cincinnati, as the brand is owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the federally recognized tribe that beat out dozens of other bidders to buy it in 2006. The organization is guarded about its financial information, but a 2016 Forbes article put total revenue from the tribe’s restaurants, hotels, and casinos at $5 billion and its net worth, including those tens of thousands of pieces of pop music memorabilia, at $12 billion.
Hard Rock’s designs on the Cincinnati market were originally more ambitious, as the company was also interested in Turfway Park, the 62-year-old horse track in Florence. Turfway was originally part of a larger transaction with Jack Entertainment, which had acquired a 40 percent stake in Turfway in 2012. But Hard Rock flipped the property in October 2019 in a separate $46 million deal.
The buyer was a name familiar to anyone with even a cursory notion of horses: Churchill Downs. But the owner of the Kentucky Derby and the legendary track in Louisville has expanded far beyond horse racing to become one of the country’s leading gaming operators.
Churchill Downs Incorporated owns 11 casino-style gaming venues in eight states, including Miami Valley Gaming and Racing in Monroe and Northern Kentucky’s Newport Gaming and Racing. It also owns one of the largest online wagering platforms, TwinSpires, which it launched 25 years ago. “Churchill Downs is a formidable player,” says Masurekar.
In corporate style, they’re the mirror opposite of Hard Rock International. Where Hard Rock is loud, Churchill Downs is reserved. Hard Rock is KISS, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. Churchill Downs is Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. “You have two companies that are the exact opposite of each other,” Masurekar says. “Churchill Downs is extremely quiet and conservative, but very meticulous. And they quietly dominate.”
ILLUSTRATION BY ZACHARY GHADERI
So quiet, in fact, that, despite repeated requests, no executive was made available for an interview for this story. A spokesperson did answer e-mailed questions. “There are a number of racing and gaming offerings in the Greater Cincinnati market that serve a very large audience that is geographically dispersed,” writes Churchill spokesperson Tonya Abeln. “We wanted to bring something to the Northern Kentucky market that eliminated commuting or traffic challenges. When Turfway Park opens mid-year in 2022, Northern Kentucky neighbors will have a world-class racing and gaming facility perfectly situated to conveniently serve them.”
Although it enjoys a nearly 150-year legacy in horse racing, the Churchill Downs of today makes its money in that most sedentary form of gambling: slots. At Miami Valley Gaming alone, players poured $2 billion worth of cash, vouchers, and promotional credits into its 2,000 or so slot machines in fiscal 2019. (They’re technically called “video lottery terminals” at Ohio’s seven racinos, but the concept is the same: Insert cash or credit card, press a button, wait for the numbers. Repeat.) Even in pandemic-disrupted 2020, when the Monroe racino was closed for three months, players managed to wager $1.6 billion on its machines.
One reason slots have such an addictive quality to them—besides the colored lights, pop culture themes, and ease of play—is that they pay out often enough to keep players interested and coming back for more. From that $2 billion wagered, Miami Valley’s players won back $1.8 billion. After accounting for promotional credits, that left $171.6 million in revenue from the one facility, state records show.
Churchill Downs owns more than 14,000 gaming machines. About 500 of them are at Newport Racing and Gaming, which opened in September 2020 at the Newport Shopping Center in a space formerly occupied by a Chinese restaurant.
There’s a small room to watch and bet on simulcast horse racing, but NG&R is all about the machines. It’s packed wall-to-wall with a peculiar variety of gaming machine called “historical horse racing machines,” which to the casual user are identical to slot machines—and they could well be the future of Churchill Downs. “Historical horse racing in Kentucky means that we can continue to attract the best racing has to offer to the Commonwealth and therefore remain the heart of this industry and the premier destination for the sport,” writes Abeln.
“Historical horse racing is a good chunk of their revenue now,” says Thomas Lambert, an economist and assistant professor at University of Louisville’s College of Business. “Only about 25 percent of their revenue comes from Fourth and Central, the main track [in Louisville].”
Casinos and slots are not legal in Kentucky, with many people thinking they’d cannibalize the Commonwealth’s signature horse racing and breeding industry. There’s also been a traditionally strong Bible Belt resistance to them in certain corners of the state.
But about 10 years ago, the racing industry, led by Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, found a back-door way to introduce slots to Kentucky. They would use machines that, instead of generating random numbers like slots do, used the results of past horse races to generate the winning results. That way, said the racing commission, they could be considered pari-mutuel wagering, which is not only legal but celebrated across the Bluegrass State. It was off to the races.
A few miles from the twin spires, Churchill Downs opened a venue called Derby City Gaming in 2018, featuring about 900 of these machines. In southwestern Kentucky, about an hour from Nashville, the company opened Oak Grove, a racing and gaming site with more historical horse racing machines (1,325) than seats in the track’s grandstand (1,200).
The Kentucky Family Foundation called the end-around a “smoke screen generated by the tracks and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that for years has masked a form of gambling.” It sued, and when the Kentucky Supreme Court eventually got the case, the justices unanimously agreed. In September 2020, the state’s highest court said the racing commission “has no authority to create from whole cloth” such a dubious form of pari-mutuel wagering. The decision dealt a potentially damaging blow to Churchill Downs’s business plans.
A few months later, however, the Kentucky General Assembly engaged in legislative
gymnastics to give the state’s racing commission the authority to do just that. A new law legalized what the company had been doing for years, clearing the way for its overhaul of Turfway Park.
When the new Turfway opens, it will feature up to 1,500 of the slot-like machines. “Churchill Downs built the whole premise of their business plan and their business model at Turfway Park on having historical horse racing machines,” says Sean Beirne, director of the equine program at the University of Louisville’s College of Business.
Churchill Downs says it will spend $145 million on a makeover of the Florence venue and has torn down the old grandstand to make way for a new one. It’s installed a new synthetic track and plans to build a sports bar and a new casino-style space for the racing machines. The name will change to Turfway Park Racing & Gaming to reflect the new slot-style games.
“We believe very strongly in preserving the strength of year-round racing in Kentucky and felt that restoring Turfway to its former glory, anchored by Northern Kentucky’s first historical racing machine facility, was a key piece of that goal,” writes Churchill Downs’s Abeln.
The company is targeting a grand opening sometime next summer. When racing begins again, the purses will be fatter, thanks to revenue brought in by the machines. Bigger paydays will encourage owners and jockeys to stay and race in Kentucky, shoring up an industry whose heyday has passed.
“For decades, horse racing was the only legitimate form of gambling,” Lambert says. “Historically, horse racing was one of the biggest games in town,” agrees Beirne, who worked for nine years at Belterra Park, back when it was called River Downs. “But as TV developed, horse racing didn’t embrace that new opportunity and kind of got left in the dust.”
The new slot machine games will not only bolster the horse racing business, they’ll create a greater economic benefit than the racing alone will, Lambert says. “The impact of Turfway will be greater than what it was when it was a racetrack alone,” he wrote in a recent analysis. For every $100 in sales at the track, another $53 in additional spending will be created in the region, Lambert says, while for every $100 spent at the gaming parlor, another $60 in sales will be generated.
Outside of horse racing, indulging in gambling meant traveling to Las Vegas or Atlantic City not all that long ago. Then cash-strapped states began to realize gambling’s potential to bring in tax revenue, and even conservative legislatures overcame opposition and eventually allowed gambling within their borders.
Twenty-five years ago, Argosy Casino opened in Lawrenceburg, the first legal gambling venue in this market. Indiana legislators made gambling palatable by confining it to boats that had to take a cruise to nowhere on the Ohio River or Lake Michigan while the slots and roulette wheels spun and the dice rolled.
That era looks quaint now. Argosy evolved into Hollywood Casino, owned by one of the country’s largest gaming operators, Penn National; it’s firmly situated on land now and features a full-service casino as well as several restaurants, a hotel, and an event space.
And today’s competitive casino landscape might appear quaint as well in the not too distant future, after the next era in gambling takes over: sports wagering. Indiana casinos immediately capitalized on sports betting, offering the option on the first day it was legal, September 1, 2019. Ohio lawmakers are in the sausage-making phase of creating legislation to permit it and are expected to pass something later this year, joining 29 other states that allow it. The state House and Senate have passed their own versions of sports gambling bills, with differences—mainly over how many licenses will be granted and who gets them—still to be hashed out.
“Sports betting adds about 25 percent more traffic and revenue to casinos and racinos that have it,” says Masurekar. Betting on the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and college sports has brought new, younger customers to the casinos that operate sportsbooks. That’s become a moneymaking opportunity in an industry eager to stay relevant to new generations.
“Sports betting brings a totally different demographic to gaming,” Masurekar says. “The typical gaming demographic is a 55-year-old woman who goes to a casino. But with sports betting, it’s typically a well-educated male who’s a high earner.”
Members of the millennial generation don’t want to simply go to a casino and press a button on a slot machine. They want experiences they can take photos of and post on social media. You can’t do that at the poker table without being asked to leave.
That’s why the major gaming companies in this region and beyond have hooked up with online sports betting companies or created their own. Hard Rock in December announced the launch of Hard Rock Digital, its bid to get a piece of the estimated $7 billion U.S. market for sports betting. Its Cincinnati casino already has an area earmarked for sports betting with seven windows and electronic kiosks, all of which will be ready when Ohio passes its bill.
Although sports betting isn’t legal in Kentucky yet, Churchill Downs has launched it at its properties in Indiana and other states.
Hollywood Casino’s parent company, Penn National, has invested in Barstool Sports, the online betting, gaming, and media company, and the Lawrenceburg casino operates a sportsbook complete with a bar and multiple TV screens. “It’s helped us attract a younger demographic,” says General Manager Mike Galle. It’s also resulted in more traffic and players who come for the sports bets trying their luck at the slots or blackjack.
“It has become a very effective customer acquisition tool,” Jeff Morris, a vice president with Hollywood’s parent company, told a legislative committee in Connecticut earlier this year. At another of its Indiana properties, in East Chicago, sports betting resulted in a 27 percent increase in money wagered at its table games and slots, he said.
The Cincinnati Reds are in on the action, agreeing to a corporate partnership with the sportsbook of Vegas-based Wynn Resorts. Reds games are now broadcast on Bally Sports Ohio, after the casino company Bally bought the naming rights to Fox Sports Ohio.
With the sports betting revenue pie expected to be divvied up by the Ohio legislature, casinos aren’t the only ones seeking a piece. Grocery stores and even bowling alleys have put in their dibs. The Reds, too, have lobbied for a share of the money that will come from a limited number of licenses, raising the prospect of a sportsbook inside Great American Ball Park. “We are primary economic engines in our communities and should benefit from this new revenue stream,” Reds Chief Financial Officer Doug Healy told legislators, referring to the Reds and the state’s other pro sports teams.
It’s enough to make the Pete Rose gambling scandal look old-fashioned. Because, well, it is. In this almost-anything-goes era of gambling, he could have legally bet on games from the dugout with a smartphone.
It’s never been easier to wager in the U.S., or more profitable. With the betting market growing by billions of dollars every year, casinos won’t be the only businesses heeding the tried-and-true advice of lottery ads: You can’t win if you don’t play.