Hey, Kentucky--New Jersey's Not That Far Away

As a native of New Jersey, I had the displeasure of witnessing a once-proud horse racing industry deteriorate. The third-biggest circuit in the country in terms of quality and pari-mutuel handle didn't go away overnight; it took about 25 years.

Why? You can blame casino gambling, competition from other states--take your pick. I always blamed it on racing's inability to reassess its position and take the steps necessary to compete as times changed.

New Jersey racing is doing that now, minus a one-time showplace that's now a strip-mall and condo haven, and another crumbling track that races only six days a year. But politics, and the Atlantic City casino lobby, have thus far stymied racing industry proaction.

My job and personal travels over the past 15 years have taken me to racinos more times than I can count. It's a great opportunity to survey the landscape, talk to horsemen and management, and walk through the casino floor. The latter is always interesting (and humorous) because I just don't get it.

I don't care for slot machines. I can remember putting a few dollars into one at Mountaineer several years ago. I ended up walking over to the simulcast area a few minutes later. Enough of that.

When it comes to gambling, I've always leaned toward the "social" games--blackjack, for instance, and of course, pari-mutuel wagering.

Slots don't do it for me, but I don't have a problem with them. If people are entertained by them, have at it. I do derive some benefits, however, in the form of nicer surroundings and upgraded food and beverage service at racetracks that have the money to make such improvements because of slots.

While I'm pretty sure I understand why New Jersey racing can't gain any traction, I'm at a loss when it comes to Kentucky, where horse racing and breeding are deeply imbedded in the fabric of the state. Is it really possible one legislator and a few Wizard of Oz types that call shots from behind a curtain really control the industry's destiny? I try, but I just can't fathom it.

(A video of part of a June 24 Keeneland rally on this topic is available at bloodhorse.com.)

Opposition to gambling is fine--if you are truly opposed to gambling. If so, why isn't legislation introduced to ban the lottery, charitable gaming, and yes, even pari-mutuel wagering?

Let's take it one step further. Why doesn't the Kentucky legislature ban tobacco? They'd be keeping me, an "addict," from continuing to make a stupid decision--smoking cigarettes. How about banning alcohol? We all know that, like gambling, it's dangerous when abused.

I lean heavily conservative in my views, but I don't put gambling on the same level as abortion. I also believe party-line voting flies in the face of reason and democracy.

Gaming at racetracks is far from a panacea. I've seen and written about the negative far too many times. One thing I've noticed, however, is it never has been done properly in my view. Slots revenue can be really beneficial in a state that truly values its horse racing and breeding industry. I'm a skeptic, but I still haven't gotten the impression racing would take a back seat to slots in Kentucky given current ownership of the tracks and the way they are operated.

I still miss New Jersey and the old days in racing there quite a bit. I hope one day I don't have to say the same about Kentucky.

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