Kentucky Assembly Stuck in Neutral - By Tom LaMarra

 (Originally published in the March 12, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Tom LaMarra

Nothing is going on here.

It was foolish to believe the Kentucky General Assembly would take substantive action involving the horse industry during the short 2011 session with a gubernatorial election looming in November. Politics usually wins out over constituency.

There was talk last fall of comprehensive racing-related legislation being introduced—even indications a constitutional amendment on racetrack gaming could be offered in advance of 2012—but it was nothing more than talk. The game of smoke and mirrors continues.

Two racing bills did pass both chambers, but you can’t blame the horse industry for not getting too excited. One authorizes Kentucky to join an interstate racing compact, while the other mandates licensing and reporting of pari-mutuel handle by advance deposit wagering companies.

The compact, though important, is more about the big picture. The ADW bill is about 10 years overdue; the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, which derives revenue from ontrack bets but not from ADW, has lost millions of dollars a year since the launch of account wagering because the KTDF statute was never revised. No one blinked an eye until last year.

In short, neither bill does anything for Kentucky purses and breed development this year and may not in future years. Meanwhile, the beat—or beating—goes on: Turfway Park has told horsemen it plans to shut down for off-season stabling and training because of a lack of money and horses. This follows on the heels of the Churchill Downs Training Center’s closing this winter for the first time because of a dwindling population of racehorses in the state.

It’s the latest sign of a struggling industry many lawmakers call “signature.” Few, however, are willing to sign on the dotted line to ensure its long-term viability.

All was not lost during the recent General Assembly. Both chambers found time to discuss and easily pass a constitutional amendment for 2012 ensuring the rights to hunt and fish are protected. They already are by statute.

So what about action on horse racing and breeding, and on supporting an economic engine Kentucky would be sorry to lose? That’s not happening any time soon.
“It’s shameful, absolutely shameful,” said former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones, owner of Airdrie Stud and chairman of the Kentucky Equine Education Project. “Everyone should be judged according to their productivity, and I think this speaks loudly to the people in Frankfort.”

The horse industry isn’t without fault for a situation that has developed over many years. Opportunities have been lost and mistakes have been made. Egos have thwarted progress. Shortsightedness and a “me” mentality haven’t helped the cause.

The industry, however, isn’t guilty of not asking for help and offering solutions. How many times does the same thing need to come up in the General Assembly before lawmakers get the message?

With each passing year of fewer horses, lower purses and breed development funds, bankruptcies, farm closures, and taxpayers leaving the state to spend money elsewhere, it becomes clear that leadership and guts are needed in political circles. The lack of action is odd, given the fact not only is the horse industry valued at $4 billion a year, it’s unbelievably popular with a public that, according to poll after poll, supports racetrack gaming in what we’re told is an anti-gambling state.

It’s frightening to think what needs to happen to racing and breeding before politicians step up. In Kentucky it’s no longer a case of the occasional worm in the apple or a damaged leaf. Neglect has led to an infested orchard that will take years to nurse back to health.

Racing isn’t going away any time soon, and neither are the stallions that keep the state’s breeding industry from becoming backwater. But when a state with the horse-related infrastructure of Kentucky can’t support year-round racing and the jobs it provides, it doesn’t bode well for the horse racing and breeding industries in other states—even those with gaming revenue.

In mid-February, Democratic Rep. Susan Westrom was one of a group of public officials that attended a Lexington reception at the new offices of the ADW call center. When asked then whether someone was going to pull a rabbit out of the hat for the horse industry this year, she answered honestly. No.

“It hurts my soul to think our signature industry is taking a back seat,” said Westrom, a frequent sponsor of racing bills. “Sometimes it takes a lot of courage (to get things done), but courage is a bit sparse right now.”

Indeed it is. What a shame—and an embarrassment.

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