Help Us Survive - By William Connelly

(Originally published in the February 13, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)      

Turfway Park celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but if the Kentucky Legislature doesn’t act to pass legislation to allow expanded gambling in Kentucky, the track bugler may be blowing “Taps” instead of the call to the post on closing day this spring.

I have worked at Turfway since 1974. This is my 36th consecutive winter at the track. I have been told that no other trainer currently racing at Turfway Park has been here longer. I have been a groom, exercise rider, pony person, and an assistant starter. I took out my trainer’s license in 1979 and have consistently maintained a stable that exceeds 20 horses.

With the passing of each year, I have witnessed a number of positive changes at the track: ownership, name, simulcasting, racing surface, grandstand renovation, and the growth of Spiral and Kentucky Cup days as major dates on the Kentucky racing calendar. Silver Charm, Serena’s Song, and Winning Colors, some of the best horses of my generation, have competed at Turfway.

In the track's recent history there has been a constant striving to better the plant and racing. But our planning for success will have been in vain if one more change is not made: Kentucky legislators need to provide us a level playing field so Kentucky racing can compete with states that have expanded gambling. To stand by and watch this wonderful industry fall by the wayside would serve a grave injustice to the thousands of individuals that have a vested interest in the well-being of horse racing, not only in Northern Kentucky, but across the state.

I’m talking about people. I’m talking about my own employees. I fear for their future should I begin to lose horses from my stable because Turfway has been forced to cut racing days and reduce purses. I’m also talking about others who will be pushed aside after years of doing nothing wrong other than devoting themselves to this industry and sticking with it through the bad times. I’m talking about the entire support system for the racing and breeding industries.

As a member of the board of directors of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and a member of the Turfway Park Racing Committee, I am in a position to know how a lot of owners and trainers feel about the current conditions in Kentucky. They have their fears about a disrupted year-round circuit with only two operating tracks. Collectively they voice their frustration about the legislative process and why year after year it’s the same old story: “Better luck next year.” They wonder if things will be any better next year. They wonder if they can survive another year.

Legislative action to allow the Kentucky racing industry to help itself needs to be taken now, before we are past the tipping point. Other states—such as Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Indiana—have literally brought their racing industries back from the dead with the passage of expanded gaming legislation and have now surpassed Kentucky with opportunities to race and breed.

I wonder why the good people of Kentucky must wait until our racing and breeding industries are on life support, gasping for breath, before any serous action might be taken?

I am a Texan by birth, a Kentuckian by choice. I want to continue to live and raise my family here. I want to race here and be a productive, tax-paying citizen. I am proud of the work I do, of the industry in which I participate, and of the important cultural heritage horses and racing have in this state. Horse racing is the lifeblood of Kentucky; racing here is special; it means something to our population, our clients, and our tourists.

Like bourbon, horses and horse racing are a genuine positive with which Kentucky is identified. I cannot picture the scenario where the elected officials of Kentucky would sit idly by and let the bourbon industry evaporate and be surrendered to Indiana and/or West Virginia. But that is what they are doing with the equine industry.

Last December a news report stated chicken farming had surpassed the equine industry as king of Kentucky’s agriculture industry. It is my humble opinion that it is time for our legislators to do the right thing for Kentucky’s present and future generations: Stop playing chicken with the goose that lays the golden egg and reach an agreement.

Kentucky-based trainer William Connelly won his 1,000th race July 17, 2009.

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