The Kentucky Derby is the only place in Kentucky where you can legally gamble

Somewhat ironically – or perhaps realizing the limitations of suing to make money from the gambling industry – state legislators issued a license allowing track operators of Churchill Downs to install video poker and slot machines at the track. The license was re-upped and is thus valid into 2020.
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The land of Bourbon is a bit more strict with it gambling laws and betting

Well … how do you feel about horse racing? Because in Kentucky, the history of gambling, gambling law and the entire industry are all tied in with the competitive ponies – and particularly, of course, the state’s world-class sports event, the Kentucky Derby.

And while betting on horse racing is quite popular and legally accounted for, the same cannot be said for casino gaming or casinos in Kentucky. To wit: No casinos are open for business in Kentucky and state legislators have allowed such gaming only at the Churchill Downs racetrack. Heck, Kentucky is one of the few states in which online casino websites are in fear of losing business, with state authorities successfully getting having nearly 150 such sites shut down in 2008.

Vital Statistics

Population: 4.413 million (2014 est.)

Area: 40,409 sq. mi.

Gambling Age (Casinos): n/a

Gambling Age (Lottery): 18

Number of Casinos: 1*


•  The state product, bourbon, was named for the county in which it was first distilled.

•  Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world.

•  The Kentucky Derby is the world’s longest continuously-running horse race event.

•  No president has been elected as a representative of Kentucky, but Abraham Lincoln was born in the state – as was Jefferson Davis.

History of gambling in Kentucky

Gambling in all forms except on horse racing was explicitly outlawed for most of the state’s history: Thanks to the lottery craze which hit American in the 1800s, the state constitution was reworked in the 1840s so as to outlaw numbers games.

In 1875, Kentucky put itself on the sportsman’s map with the first running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Technically, wagering on these and other horse races in Kentucky was against the law, but the practice was essentially merely ignored. Naturally, Kentucky was one of the first states to introduce the French system of pari-mutuel betting at its racetracks.

Little changed until 1988. In that year, state legislators got around to allowing the creation of a state lottery – a good 15 years after northerly states had pioneered the concept. While much of the U.S. was readying the legal way for Native American tribes to establish casinos, Kentucky’s prohibitive anti-gambling laws kept Kentucky citizens from the opportunity. Four years later, charity gaming was officially allowed, and pull-tabs were introduced as well.

In 2008, Kentucky’s attorney general decided to take a tack in the fight against online gambling by state citizens. Under auspices of state law and the federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) passed in 2005, Kentucky authorities seized and shut down over 140 gambling websites. The same year, the government filed a lawsuit against BWin, alleging the gambling website had taken bets from Kentucky residents even after passage of UIGEA. In 2010, then-governor Steve Brashear announced that settlements in the two incidents had earned the state $21 million.

Casino Venues

Since 2010, the Churchill Downs has offered a few hundred slot machines and video poker games, but to get proper casino gaming, residents of Kentucky can get in the car and head to the Tropicana Evansville (110 miles northwest of Bowling Green) or to the casino in French Lick, Indiana (about 75 miles northwest of Louisville).

Casino Gambling Age Restrictions

It’s difficult to say, with no proper casinos in Kentucky! However, we suppose the good news is that all other (limited) forms of gambling, including betting on horse races, in the state lottery or on pull-tab cards, is 18.

Famous Kentucky gamblers

Due to the longtime highly restrictive prevailing attitude toward gambling in Kentucky, not a heck of a lot of famous gamblers have hailed from the state, so we’re going to go with a couple of folks who once played the prototype Kentucky gambler in a song.

Though actually lifelong residents of Tennessee and California, respectively, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard certainly enjoyed a great deal of popularity in Kentucky in their heyday as country & western superstars. In 1974-75, each released a version of the song “Kentucky Gambler,” an account of a player who, you guessed it, loses it all at the tables when Lady Luck turns fickle. The first two verses, in Haggard’s first-person version, go like so:

I wanted more from life than four kids and a wife
And a job in a dark Kentucky mine
A 20-acre farm, with a shacky house and barn
That’s all I had and all I left behind.

But at gambling, I was lucky, and so I left Kentucky
And left behind my woman and my kids
Into the gay casinos of Nevada’s town of Reno
This Kentucky Gambler planned to get rich quick.

(Here’s to thinking the word “gay” means something different in this context…_

Kentucky gambling law (as of 2017)

As detailed above, only state lottery commission-issued “instant win” or lottery games and pari-mutuel betting are legal in Kentucky. And while the UIGEA is mostly toothless in most of the U.S. vis-à-vis actual legal action, this does not appear to be the case in Kentucky, so be careful when playing online there.

Future of Gambling in Kentucky

With the question of re-licensure for the Churchill Downs’s electronic games/slot machines offerings settled in 2015, we’d expect little more than tumbleweeds in terms of Kentucky gambling laws changing. Since licensure by the state is granted specifically to horse-racing venues, the Native American population of Kentucky cannot take advantage of federal law.

Figure on Kentucky to stay anti-gambling in general, and for its laws to reflect that, for some time yet.