Churchill Downs picked to build western Indiana casino

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The company that runs the Kentucky Derby has been picked to take over the stalled project to build a casino in the western Indiana city of Terre Haute.

Indiana Gaming Commission members voted Wednesday in favor of Louisville, Kentucky-based Churchill Downs Inc. over three other companies that submitted proposals.

Churchill Downs’ selection comes after the Terre Haute project was derailed amid an investigation into allegations of criminal and financial misconduct against top executives in an ownership group that was originally awarded the casino license in 2019.

Churchill Downs said it plans a $240 million project to build a new casino, along with a 10-story, 125-room hotel with a rooftop lounge. The company expects to open the casino within 16 months on property south of the Interstate 70-U.S. 41 interchange. Executives said they could also consider sites near I-70 on the city’s east side.

CEO Bill Carstanjen told the state commission that Churchill Downs was not pursuing multiple projects or already running casinos elsewhere in Indiana like the other applicants.

“This is a market that we’ve been after for a while,” Carstanjen said. “We’re going to be absolutely focused on going to the maximum extent we can.”

The other applicants included Hard Rock International, which had an agreement to operate a $125 million casino in Terre Haute before the state commission voted in June against renewing the casino license because the ownership group hadn’t hired an executive team or secured full financing after more than a year. Florida-based Hard Rock in August took over ownership of a new $300 million casino in Gary from Indianapolis-based Spectacle Entertainment, the company entangled in the misconduct investigation.

The state commission selected Churchill Downs even though the previous Terre Haute casino group is fighting the loss of its license. The commission is in settlement negotiations with that group ahead of a scheduled Dec. 3 hearing before an administrative law judge.

Besides its namesake horse track in Louisville and pari-mutuel facilities in Kentucky, Churchill Downs operates 10 casinos in eight states.

The Terre Haute project will become Indiana’s 13th casino location, with the city becoming the state’s first new community to get a casino since 2008.

Gaming commission Executive Director Greg Small said it was important to get the new casino built.

“This project has been pending for too long and too little has been done to fully capture the benefits to the state or local community,” Small said.

The Terre Haute project has faced turmoil since early 2020 when state casino officials began investigating Spectacle Entertainment and then-CEO Rod Ratcliff after the filing of federal charges of illegal political campaign contributions involving a longtime Ratcliff business partner, former Spectacle vice president John Keeler.

State officials forced Spectacle last year to give up ownership of that project to Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson, but his efforts to open the casino stalled.

Ratcliff has denied wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged by federal authorities in the campaign financing case. Keeler is awaiting trial on the charges.

Ratcliff agreed in March to give up his state casino license and sell his ownership stake in the Gary casino, ending more than a decade as a heavyweight in Indiana’s gambling industry.