Losing Gamble

In 1987, the Kentucky Democratic primary for governor included two men who had previously held the post (Julian Carroll and John Y. Brown Jr.), the incumbent Lieutenant Governor (Steve Beshear), and Gov. Martha Layne Collins’ cabinet secretary (Grady Stumbo).

Wallace Wilkinson, then an unknown, entered the race with a political consultant who at the time was also not a household name—James Carville. Wilkinson’s campaign focused on a single issue, one that had been floated during legislative sessions in the state with mixed support. But, pumping millions of his own money into his campaign, Wilkinson, with Carville’s help, put together an ad campaign that proposed a state lottery, and Wilkinson closed a gap in the final days of the campaign to win the race in stunning fashion.

Obviously, Beshear remembers that time well, because 20 years later he focused his campaign for governor primarily on one issue—casinos. Beshear’s 19-point margin of victory over incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher was a clear mandate that the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky wanted the opportunity to vote on the issue as a constitutional amendment.

Wilkinson did what those who elected him requested—he championed the cause, as a bill authorizing the vote on a constitutional amendment passed in the 1988 legislative session. Three weeks later, a special session passed the enabling legislation. In November, 60% of those who cast ballots voted to approve the lottery, and the first tickets were sold April 4, 1989; first-week sales generated $27 million.

Since that time, hundreds of millions have poured into state coffers because Kentuckians have been able to play the lottery within the state’s borders.

Kentuckians have made their feelings known that they also want to be able to play a slot machine without traveling to Indiana to do so. Each day, cars with Kentucky license plates cross into Indiana to spend money at casinos, dollars that should remain in the state to help purses and fund state programs.

The horse industry heavily backed Beshear and heard him repeatedly say he would work hard to get a constitutional amendment on casinos passed. (Full Disclosure: This writer was among those who contributed to the Beshear/Mongiardo ticket.) But alas, another legislative session has passed with the state’s signature industry left yet again to agonize over why it cannot garner needed help from its elected officials.

Beshear and his advisers completely fumbled the ball, coming out late with a bill and having no true support from legislative leaders. But Beshear should not take all the blame. House Speaker Jody Richards also performed miserably, the perception by many being that he was not even for the bill.

Wallace Wilkinson did what the voters asked him to do. Steve Beshear did not. Wilkinson helped bring in revenue when facing a budget deficit. Now, the deficit is much larger, yet Beshear has done nothing.

“The bill is dead,” Beshear said March 27. So, too, is the governor’s support from the horse industry.


There was more bad news when it became known the budget for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority might be slashed as state legislators grappled with a budget bill containing drastic cuts and no new revenue streams.

Past assessments to the state’s four Thoroughbred tracks—based on handle and number of days raced—which were suspended during the Fletcher administration, may be reinstated. But Senate President David Williams is pushing to exempt the state’s two smaller tracks, Ellis and Turfway.

It costs the same to oversee a day of racing at Ellis Park as Churchill Downs, at Turfway Park as Keeneland, and everyone should help foot the bill of the regulatory agency’s expenses.

Less staff means less oversight, and less oversight means an open invitation to cheaters.

Not a good week in Kentucky.

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