Over the past three years, a new channel for gaming content has grown steadily, to the benefit of not only its suppliers but the horse racing industry, particularly in Kentucky.
Historical horse racing (HHR) is a technology similar to Class II gaming in that a central system is used to translate data into wagering results on a standard gaming cabinet. In this case, the data consists of results from historical horse races. It is by no means a new technology. It was 1997 when Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park racetrack first placed historical horse racing machines, also known as “instant racing.”
Various forms of HHR have appeared over the years, their operation often the subject of legal challenges. In markets like Kentucky, where year after year, attempts to legalize slots at the racetracks were turned back in the legislature, the HHR machines allowed tracks to raise purses and attract the quality of races that already were benefiting tracks in neighboring states where they were permitted to add Class III slots.
HHR, eventually legalized by Kentucky lawmakers, has provided a lifeline to Kentucky’s storied horse racing industry. Over the past few years, the HHR market in Kentucky has been joined by HHR legalization in other states, and this new segment of the industry has continued to expand.
No company has been more prominent in that expansion than Las Vegas-based Ainsworth Game Technology. Ainsworth has been at the center of HHR expansion in Kentucky, where more than 2,000 Ainsworth games—on Ainsworth cabinets—are operating across six venues, with a seventh on tap to open in December.
Just as important to the state’s HHR expansion has been the patent-pending Ainsworth HHR system, created in collaboration with Churchill Downs Inc. with the goal of producing a product that could compete with Class III slot machines in nearby states.
The system was developed on the bones of the central determinant system Ainsworth inherited with its 2016 acquisition of Class II supplier Nova Technologies, but the collaboration with Churchill Downs created an HHR platform that has added the games of four major slot manufacturers to the Ainsworth units.
Thousands of games are currently deployed on Ainsworth’s system from Scientific Games, IGT and Konami Gaming, and in December, Aristocrat games will be added to the system.
“We are currently live with more than 2,000 Ainsworth units,” says Mike Trask, vice president of product marketing and strategy for Ainsworth. “To be clear, that means just Ainsworth hardware. There are many, many more units that are connected to the Ainsworth system spread across Kentucky.”
The other manufacturers are present in both game content and hardware—they are each on the distinctive cabinets of those manufacturers. It means that the variety on an HHR floor has drawn much closer to that found on a commercial casino floor.
Right in the thick of the development of the Ainsworth HHR system in collaboration with Churchill Downs was David Waters, Ainsworth vice president of global technologies.
“It started with a request from Churchill Downs,” Waters recalls. “There were HHR products in the field in Kentucky, but Churchill felt those products to be inferior for what they wanted—their vision in what they were trying to build in a gaming facility. And they wanted a product that could compete with casino slots.”
Waters says CDI looked to several vendors, and decided Ainsworth fit the bill for what they were trying to accomplish. “For some vendors, it wasn’t enough business to get their attention. It was enough for others, but they didn’t have the library and cabinet selection.
“Ainsworth was kind of the ‘Goldilocks’ size for their project. They wanted to build this bespoke product, and it was a big enough chunk of business to get our attention. Yet, we were still large enough to be able to provide the breadth of game library and cabinet selections to allow them to have a diversified floor.”
The project resulted in HHR versions of Ainsworth’s most popular games that were seamless recreations of those games from the player’s perspective.
The only difference in the presentation, in fact, required a bit more exploration—the miniature bingo card in the Class II game, the miniature race display on the HHR machine. Other than that, “it gives a player an immersion, a playing experience like you would have at any other property,” Waters says. “You’re going to have the same play experience you would have with all of our products in the casino.”
Both the platform and the Ainsworth HHR games would make a grand debut with the 2018 opening of the Derby City gaming parlor, around five miles from Churchill Downs’ Louisville location. The venue opened with 100 percent Ainsworth—nearly 1,000 machines, still the largest single machine order in the company’s history. The system would add the other manufacturers and spread to other Kentucky tracks.
“We launched at Derby City with 16 titles that included Pac-Man, Three Amigos, Rumble Rumble, Flying Horse—we launched seven different cabinet styles with 60 different titles,” says Waters.
The addition of Aristocrat to the Ainsworth HHR system in December means that the HHR venues are guaranteed the variety of five top gaming manufacturers on their floors.
“We believe we have one of the most compelling systems with the flexibility to provide a a Las Vegas-style gaming experience on an HHR product,” says Waters. “We have some patent-pending technologies, and we innovated to utilize mathematics that allow the game to play like the machines in Las Vegas. One of the key pieces that we provide is being able to play multi-line games that have the same play and payout frequencies that you would see in a traditional property.”
“These partnerships,” adds Trask, “with what are the four most prevalent gaming suppliers in North America, enable a customer who chooses the Ainsworth HHR system to not only provide hundreds of varieties of Ainsworth games on eight different box styles, but you’re also getting the ability to use an IGT or Aristocrat title on their box style to give you that diversity of floor.”
“As we partnered with Churchill, the most important thing for us was to provide an environment that provided HHR terminals that played or resembled a Class III environment,” says Deron Hunsberger, chief commercial officer for Ainsworth. “In that process, as we looked at development, we felt it was very important to integrate other manufacturers, not just from a content perspective, but also from a cabinet perspective to assure that you’re getting variety on a floor and providing the entertainment value to the player.”
Aristocrat’s footprint in HHR is growing rapidly every month. In December, Kentucky Downs will open its new venue in Bowling Green, a satellite facility to The Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs in Franklin.
“Bringing Ainsworth in has helped increase and elevate our business, which in turn puts more money into the horse industry,” says Dan Roy, COO of Kentucky Downs. “It’s a direct relationship. The better we do, the better they do. When I was first asked by the owners to come in and help out, they had a different system that I felt was at a disadvantage competitively. So, I reached out to Ainsworth. We brought their tote system in, and all the content that comes with that, which is extensive and already proven in other markets.
“The install, the expansion went fantastic. We’re excited to get them up in Bowling Green, with even more content available to us, and on the eastern side of Kentucky.”
Jim Mahnesmith, general manager of the Mint Gaming Hall, comments that Ainsworth technicians were instrumental in getting the facility up and running. “When the Ainsworth games got here, an army of their folks came to help us install them,” he says. “The level of cooperation they showed was just incredible. All the experience and knowledge they have working on not just Ainsworth cabinets, but guys that have worked in the technician field for a long time, was super helpful in getting my techs trained up to a point where they feel comfortable working on the Ainsworth cabinets as well.”
“The Ainsworth partnership was perfect,” says Roy. “With not only their games but games they have incorporated into their tote system, it’s a win-win for Ainsworth, and certainly for The Mint at Kentucky Downs.”
The Kentucky Downs facilities are the latest in Ainsworth’s expanding presence within Kentucky, where Churchill has moved some of the initial Ainsworth units to its other Kentucky tracks, at Newport and Oak Grove, to make room for games of the company’s partners.
According to Hunsberger, further expansion in Kentucky will come when Kentucky Downs creates another satellite facility with The Mint brand in southeastern Kentucky. “That’s probably a 2022 event,” he says.
The Ainsworth HHR footprint also is expanding rapidly to other states—namely, Virginia, Alabama and Wyoming.
“We have a presence in Virginia and we have a presence in Alabama,” says Hunsberger, “and just recently we’ve added the presence in Wyoming. We’re working on hopefully getting installed in December with the Flying Lark, which is in Grants Pass, Oregon. That particular property is is close to completion.”
The new facility, slated to open by the end of the year, is adjacent to Grants Pass Downs, a thoroughbred track on the corner of Oregon’s Josephine County Fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, Ainsworth is following legislation in other states for more potential HHR expansion.
“We’re deeply involved in New Hampshire,” Hunsberger says. “We’re waiting on the rules being published and finalized by the lottery there. There are approximately 17 charity licenses in the state that will be operating machines or gaming terminals, and we anticipate we’ll be participating in all of those.”
Trask says the heavy presence of Ainsworth games in the HHR market is in itself aiding in increasing the footprint.
“It’s a very cool thing for Ainsworth to flip the script to where we are first to market,” he says. “In a new market, Kentucky being one of them, there is this runway where Ainsworth games were there first.
“We were there on opening day of Derby City; the players who have been having fun at that property the last few years are really used to and comfortable with the Ainsworth game experience, and we’re seeing that sort of situation play out in the long term as we continue to be extremely strong performers. I believe that players are just comfortable with our product, and that’s really translated in that we’re creating new players.”
He adds that players who are fans of Ainsworth games in commercial casino markets are finding the exact same experience on the HHR versions in Kentucky. Many of the top Ainsworth performers in Kentucky are also their top games in other markets—the Quick Spin series, and in a larger sense, the high-denomination content that has fueled its top games, are all big hitters in HHR as well.
Hunsberger notes that the reverse is also true—success of Ainsworth games in the HHR market bolsters their popularity in traditional markets.
“We do very well in Virginia and Kentucky,” he says, “and we’re just getting ready to launch in Wyoming. Any time you get exposure in one of those markets that are feeder markets to a Class III environment, people get used to playing those games, and they’ll look for that content when they go into a Class III facility.”
Trask says the company is even developing games exclusively for the HHR market, “meaning our game development team is creating games that go into HHR first. Then, we’ll thing about using them in other markets in the future. They’ve done really well.”
Ainsworth’s HHR market is bound to expand further.
“There’s an appetite and a desire to support some of these aging tracks across the country,” says Hunsberger, “and we’re seeing legislation pop up, most of it being driven by the horse racing community, to reinvigorate purses to support that industry.
“Obviously there’s additional tax revenue available when you do this as well, like in the charity market in New Hampshire—you’re seeing that it’s an avenue for the states to generate income and at the same time, support legacy properties and industries.”
“At its core with many of our customers, historical horse racing has been an avenue to bolster the horsemen industry,” adds Waters. “We are proud to support their ability to run this industry in a place like Kentucky. It’s extremely prominent and provides a lot of jobs, as they use this as a way of increasing purses, increasing attendance at races and ensuring that industry continues to thrive.”