Developer partners with City of Versailles on new central Kentucky training center

by James Platz

A new standardbred training center is coming to the heart of the Bluegrass State. Construction is slated to begin next month on a facility in Versailles that will feature a five-eighths-mile oval and seven-eighths-mile strip, and will be a short ship to The Red Mile.

Alex Riddle, a Versailles native, is one of the primary partners in Versailles Standardbred Group, LLC, the project’s developers. He said that the group previously struggled to solidify plans for the center just west of Lexington in Woodford County, but now the project is a reality.

“Four years ago, we started working on finding a location to do this project,” Riddle said. “We’ve had a couple of locations fall through. It’s been a slog, but we’re really excited about where we are now. This is definitely the best location we have had. We had one location in Lexington that we were actually under option on when the city approached us about this idea of moving it back to Versailles.”

The partnership between Riddle’s group and the city is mutually beneficial. In 2020, the City of Versailles purchased a 337-acre tract of land formerly known as Edgewood Farm. The property is situated along U.S. Highway 60 (Lexington Road) and Paynes Mill Road east of downtown. It was purchased for $6.3 million. A 135-acre section of the land is permanently zoned A-1 for agriculture, and will be the site of the training center.

“The piece of land is an incredible location,” said Riddle, also a director with the Woodford County Economic Development Authority. “Any developer would love to develop it into something commercial or industrial. I’ve sat on advocacy boards and also on the economic development board, so I see the big picture. I’m really excited that we are able to keep it ag, so we are able to keep it zoned A-1, which is a key component for this.”

Riddle, son of Rood and Riddle co-founder Dr. Tom Riddle, serves as the marketing director for an equine pharmaceutical company, but also is a successful entrepreneur that has already left his mark in Versailles. Working with another partnership, he has renovated multiple historic buildings in the Woodford County seat’s downtown, operating businesses out of each. When looking to tackle the latest project, Riddle again felt Versailles offered the best location.

“All local, all central Kentucky, all within a 15-minute drive of The Red Mile,” he said. “That was our goal. And really my goal as a Versailles advocate and a member of the economic development authority there, I really wanted it to be in Versailles, but also wanted it to be in the best place for the project.”

In Versailles, Riddle has found allies that believe in the project and want to support it. Recently, the City Council voted to issue a $5.4 million bond for the training center. The vote paved the way for Riddle and his team to begin construction in short order.

“They really want this project there, and we’ve had several conversations about trying to make Versailles and Woodford County the capital of standardbred racing in Kentucky,” Riddle said. “They are very excited to help us. They are basically improving the land and then we are putting anything training center specific on top of that. That will be our contribution. We are putting up quite a bit of capital. The city is obviously coming in with quite a bit of capital, so it will be a great partnership with them.”

The training center will be a phased development plan and the timeline for Phase 1 is aggressive. Riddle wants the facility open in time for racing in 2025, meaning that construction needs to begin next month.

“We’ll break ground in July,” he said. “There are a couple small tweaks on the plan based on the core drillings. Then we’ll be ready to go in July. The bond issue goes out this week and then funds should be with the city by that first week of July. That’s kind of our plan as well, come in alongside them that first or second week of July.”

Horseman John Duer is a partner on the project, as are two others that will serve as the management team for Versailles Standardbred Group, LLC. Riddle said Duer has been instrumental in providing feedback and expertise as the vision for the training center has formed.

“He was my first contact in the standardbred industry,” Riddle said. “He is the key industry partner on this for us. He’s very well connected and had a good career training. He has worked in a lot of training centers, so he has been very helpful in that perspective.”

Phase 1 of the training center calls for the construction of a five-eighths-mile training track and seven-eighths-mile straight strip. A total of 250 stalls are planned for the first phase. Riddle said Versailles Standardbred Group, LLC has projected the first phase will cost $1.7 million, with funding generated from the partners and a handful of limited partners that have come on board as investors.

“The city bond is for infrastructure and land improvements that stay with the land,” Riddle said of the 20-year agreement that provides an option to buy the land at its conclusion. “Their lease to us, we add improvements on top of that. As of right now, that’s all investor funded. We have an opportunity where we could put some financing on it. I like to keep things as investor funded as possible to reduce the debt load.”

Later phases call for another 200 stalls, shedrows for seasonal clientele, a restaurant/track kitchen, and dormitories. The partnership is currently fundraising for the later phases. Riddle believes that once open, the facility will prove an attractive option for horsemen.

“We’ve had quite a bit of interest,” he said. “Because we’ve been working on it for so long, and because we’ve been working on four different pieces of land, we’ve had a couple of false starts with a lot of good support. We feel very confident, based on conversations we’ve had, that we’ll fill it up pretty quick. With the incentive fund being what it is now, we have a lot of horses that want to come into Kentucky, they just don’t have any place to stable.”

With a background steeped in thoroughbred racing, Riddle fell in love with standardbreds five years ago when he attended his first harness race. The race? The Little Brown Jug. Since then, he has participated in partnerships on a few claimers.

“We’ve broken even,” he said of the experience. “That’s a win. We haven’t lost any money yet, knock on wood.”

Much like his Jug trip and subsequent ownership endeavors, Riddle sees the training center as an opportunity to expose others to harness racing.

“I think harness racing is the best, most approachable, most exciting way to get new fans into the industry,” he said. “I fell in love with the sport for that reason. I think this is a great addition and something really fun to really drive horsemen and help the industry, and also drive tourism. That’s kind of my dream for this, to be a place where people can experience their first harness horse.”