Taking Root
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief
Veteran Texas politician Lloyd Bentsen may best be remembered for his putdown of Sen. Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debates after Quayle compared himself to former President John F. Kennedy. ("Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.")

But more relevant in the political trenches of Washington, D.C., and state capitals throughout the United States was Bentsen's comment that he could "always tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf."

That might not be true of some of Kentucky's politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, who have stonewalled and stuttered to near-death this year's effort by the horse industry to pass legislation allowing Kentucky voters to decide whether to permit casino gambling at racetracks and possibly other locations across the Bluegrass State. The deadline for the legislation (House Bill 600) to pass is March 23, and at press time it was languishing in the House Licensing and Occupations Committee, apparently at the direction of Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards.

Getting it passed by the House was to be the easy part. The Republican-controlled Senate, whose president, David Williams, has been an outspoken opponent of the bill, would be an even bigger hurdle.

Kentucky politicians need to understand the educational and lobbying efforts undertaken by the Kentucky Equine Education Project are not a one-and-out deal. The horse industry, which for too long was nonexistent in Kentucky politics, quickly became the state's No. 1 lobbying force. And that's exactly what Kentucky's top industry should be.

The horse industry's political grass roots are anything but AstroTurf. They are real.

If HB 600 is dead, the horse industry has time to help reshape the political landscape. Republican Ernie Fletcher, whose first term has been characterized by scandal and overall weakness, is ripe to be unseated as governor. It's important the industry find the right candidate to support, unlike 2003 when many Thoroughbred breeders helped raise money to elect Fletcher, despite Democratic candidate Ben Chandler's pro-racing position on expanded gaming.

In addition to the gubernatorial candidates, members of the Kentucky House and Senate must be identified as friends or foes of the racing industry and its most important issue. For example, Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, who sponsored legislation creating a breeders' incentive fund, has not supported KEEP's efforts to approve casino gambling at tracks. Thayer is a vice president of Breeders' Cup/National Thoroughbred Racing Association and is under increasing criticism from Kentucky breeders for his silence on the casino issue. They are trying to determine if he is truly a friend or foe of Kentucky's racing and breeding industry.

Many of those breeders are members of Team 100, comprised of 100 people involved in Kentucky's horse industry who have pledged $10,000 each in campaign contributions over two years to help elect more friends of the industry. These individuals can have far more impact on an election than KEEP's political action committee, which can contribute no more than $2,000 to a candidate during one election cycle.

That's what happened in February, when two candidates who received significant financial support from KEEP members won special elections for a seat in the House and Senate. The significance of those victories seems to have had little or no impact on Kentucky legislators.

Those Kentucky politicians who fail to understand that the horse business is just getting started in state politics may soon find out reelections they once thought were virtually assured are not going to be so easy. If anyone knows anything about grass roots, it's horse farmers in the Bluegrass State.

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