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 TwinSpires.com 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.

17 Comments

Leave a Comment:

fb0252

might part of the problem be continuingly vilifying the opposition that you are trying to sway to your side?

08 Mar 2011 1:17 PM
James, Fairfax, CA

I purchased horses at auctions in Lexington for years. If the Kentucky thoroughbred industry continues it's rapid decline the very future of horse racing in this country is in serious doubt. This is simply a case of social conservatives holding a state hostage and threatening its signature industry. Morals over bread, as it were. I have to believe the people of Kentucky can vote to solve this problem.  

08 Mar 2011 2:32 PM
nancyalis

You voters elected Rand Paul. Now deal with him. Good Luck.

08 Mar 2011 2:46 PM
Homeless

I'm one of the trainers being kicked out of Turfway. I have applied for stalls at two other tracks, neither of them in Kentucky. If I find a new home I won't be back in the Commonwealth until they rediscover, their roots as a leader in the Industry.

08 Mar 2011 5:05 PM
Jeff G

Tom,

Thanks for your advocacy. May the Horse be with you.

08 Mar 2011 5:09 PM
jessie baker

send them a message on election day saying your fired if you cant represent us you are not doing your job anyone else who does not preform at their job gets fired why should they be any different

08 Mar 2011 5:49 PM
MidwaySue

I would like the lawmakers to let us know when the horse industry is gone what jobs they are creating to replace the thousands that are lost, including the ones that are related to the tourisum industry, bed and breakfast, resturants, hotel, motels.Small towns with shops like the one I live in will dry up.Property values will drop, etc. They come here to see the farms and the horses. No one will come to see the Toyota plant, cows, empty fields and rundown barns and houses.

It's not only the people in the industry like myself; I can pack up and move.What will they do to help the people that stay? But it won't really bother the lawmakers much, they can still take their overly moral butts across the line to Indiana and go to the casinos like they have done for years! Its no wonder Indiana has a billboard thanking Kentucky residents for coming and spending money on a road leaving one of its casinos.

09 Mar 2011 9:23 AM
bill evans

It's sad, but somehow Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky don't run the state. It's the the Bible Belt with their scare tactics and religion that make the minority opinion the only one mentioned.  

09 Mar 2011 10:24 AM
tim martin

We are in the 18th century in Kentucky, and in a few years we'll wonder what happened to horse racing. Turfway will close and so will Ellis Park. Somehow southern Kentucky and the morality parade run this state instead of the reality that exists in the cities, where people actually live and where the tracks are; it's sad but no one has enough guts to challenge the Southern Kentucky religious politicians.

09 Mar 2011 10:31 AM
Stephen

We could do something about saving the industry if we would.  The biggest challenge we have to overcome is the short sighted, me, me, me greed that is pervasive  in this industry. Its a "divided we fall" issue.  If the industry would unite into one body, with one voice of power we could accomplish something.  Instead we are selfishly concerned with only our own share of the shrinking pie.  Its the old monkey trap: we have a hold of a banana through the hole in the wall, and won't let go for fear of losing it, but can't get it out cause the hole's too small.  Meanwhile the banana is rotting so there wil be nothing left.

09 Mar 2011 2:39 PM
Sue M.

Ugh. It appears that conservatism isn't just killing my home state (Michigan) and my new state (Ohio), now it's killing the state that breeds my favorite animal (The Thoroughbred) and supports my favorite sport (horse racing). I'm sorry you have Rand Paul but in Michigan Snyder is gearing up to strip workers/local govt rights. I had no idea things were so bad in Kentucky with horse racing. I'm a moderate myself, but at the moment I have nothing but contempt for 99% of the people who are sitting in Washington. All they do is try to fill their own coffers and those of big business. They're too worried about who's going to vote in 2012 to fix what's wrong right now.

09 Mar 2011 3:01 PM
Picksburg Phil

Sue M, let me see if I understand you. 99% of the people in Washington are trying to fill the coffers (who uses that word anymore?) and those of big business. OK. But you are in favor of filling the coffers of big racing business. So, you're not opposed to filling coffers, just filling the coffers that you want. Got it.

09 Mar 2011 6:35 PM
KY FARM

3 boarded horses are leaving our farm today to ship to another state.

10 Mar 2011 12:30 PM
Homeless too!

Our owner/trainer operation has been using Turfway summer rental and supporting racing there, and other KY tracks, for 4 years since selling our farm in another state. This allowed us to live in our house and ship to run. It's not the fact that they are closing down but the fact that they waited so long to make it public. The information came out on 3/1, the day stall applications were due at both Keeneland and Churchill, but allowing enough time to consider Thistledown, which is owned by Harrah's, which also owns part of Turfway along with Keeneland. How convenient!

They didn't give the people a chance to make plans for their stables.I think we all need to make noise and let our voices be heard. Call everyone you can think of, representatives, governor, HBPA members, KHRC, general managers, and all Thoroughbred periodicals. A voice can be a powerful thing if it is used.

10 Mar 2011 1:30 PM
Tiznow Supahstar

I'm as big a fan of horse racing as anybody but I can see where the other side is coming from.  These aren't exactly the best of times.

I agree with fb0252, don't villify someone just because they have a different opinion than you.  Try working with them instead of against them.  

12 Mar 2011 4:40 PM
Fran Loszynski

Lexington and Louisville are to a fan where racehorses are born and bred and retired.  It is the first area that comes to mind. We are so lucky to have such beautiful places for racehorses. It should be the area in the forefront of displaying horse racing as an exciting and wonderful sport not tied up in opinions and legislation. This is one of the reasons horse racing is always on the back burner of sports. We should have out there how great in sync everything is--owners, trainers, stables, tracks. I visited Lexington and I wlll never forget the beauty and kindness of people there, the beautiful Thoroughbred farms. There may be people there that don't want to be known only as the horse racing capital of the nation but you are so very lucky. I think alot of the legislators need to take a few walks along the beautiful white rail fences on a spring day and have a racehorse nuzzle your shoulder after he speeds across the field.

13 Mar 2011 8:12 AM
Kevin L

Horse racing should not be looking to the government to fix what is ailing the horse racing industry.   The horse racing industry has been stuck in “neutral” for years.   Consumers have many more options today in which to spend their discretionary dollars than during the boom years of horse racing.  The industry has failed to adapt to these changes.  What is horse racing doing to attract new clients?  I live near Philadelphia Park.  I cannot recall ever hearing an advertisement or reading an advertisement in a newspaper or magazine regarding horse racing at Philadelphia Park.   Delaware Park had a radio advertising campaign a few years back.  That is the only advertisement that I have ever heard specifically advertising horse racing.   How do you expect to grow your client base if you don’t advertise your product?   That is business 101.  

The horses are the stars of horse racing.  The public needs to get more exposure to them to allow them to grow a bigger fan base.   Unless you follow horse racing closely, you would not know when or where a horse will race next.   At the Delaware County Ohio fair grounds, spectators are able to go into the stables to see the horses up close.  A barrier that the spectators can see through but keeps them a safe distance away from the horses will allow spectators to observe the horses up close.   My young daughter would be thrilled to get an up close look at the race horses.

Owners and trainers have gotten to risk adverse.  They are racing horses less which limits their exposure to the public.  After their 3 year old year, many of the top male horses get retired to the breeding shed.  If these horses were left to race another year or two, their fan base would grow drawing bigger crowds to the track.  Races will become more competitive due to the improvement in quality of the horses running.   This will make the races more exciting to the public, drawing them to the track to watch them race.   Last year everyone in horse racing was anticipating a race between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexander.  Unfortunately the race never happened.   Having horses race later in life will allow more superstars to meet on the track.  

Racing horses later in life will also help breeders determine which horses are more durable so they can breed more sound horses.  

Racinos are not the answer.  This amounts to welfare for the horse industry.  The government giveth, and the government taketh away.  Look what happened in Indiana.   When budget deficits grow, casino revenue will be diverted from horse racing into more "necessary" areas.  The horse industry needs to make itself self sustaining.  The question is who is going to take the necessary steps to help return horse racing to the glory days?  Who will take charge and move the gear shifter from neutral to drive?

15 Mar 2011 3:18 PM

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