Politics Colors Breeders' Cup Announcement

Politics Colors Breeders' Cup Announcement
Photo: Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
(from left) Breeders' Cup Chairman William S. Farish, Jr., Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Breeders' Cup President and CEO Greg Avioli, and CDI President and CEO Bob Evans chat after announcement that Churchill Downs will host the 2011 Breeeders' Cup.

When Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and representatives of Breeders’ Cup and Churchill Downs announced that the Louisville racetrack had been selected to host the World Championships in 2011, on top of being the 2010 host, there was a great deal of credit spread around.

Breeders’ Cup president and chief executive officer Greg Avioli and organization chairman Bill Farish praised management at Churchill, whose president and CEO, Bob Evans, had kind words to say about Breeders’ Cup management and staff. And the governor praised both entities while at the same time taking credit for legislation for economic incentives to help lure the Breeders’ Cup.

"As part of an overhaul of our economic development tool box that I successfully pushed through a special session of the General Assembly last year, we expanded incentives to help attract events like the Breeders’ Cup, given its huge economic impact on Kentucky businesses," Beshear said.

Absent from the press conference was Republican Kentucky Sen. Damon Thayer, who introduced legislation in 2009 and 2010 that specifically provides a lucrative tax break to Breeders’ Cup. Not only was he not invited to the event, Thayer was not mentioned by any of the participants.

The legislation provides that if the Breeders’ Cup, which already committed to having the races at Churchill in 2010, were to return to the track in two of the years between 2011-13, the organization would receive a break in the tax assessed on wagers placed on the World Championships. The bill was amended during this year’s legislative session to allow the tax break, estimated at $1 million a year, to also be applied to this year’s World Championships if Breeders’ Cup committed to Churchill in either 2011 or 2012, or both.

"I feel a sense of vindication with the announcement (of Churchill as host site in 2011)," Thayer said June 11. "It would have been nice if someone from Breeders’ Cup, Churchill Downs, or the governor’s office had invited me (to the press conference)."

Thayer has indicated he could run for lieutenant governor on a Republican ticket in 2011. Beshear will seek his second term as governor next November.

In response to an e-mail inquiry about the exclusion of Thayer from the press conference, Avioli said: "We appreciated the support of Sen. Thayer, the entire legislature, and the governor in passing the incentive bill. As we mentioned at the press conference, the potential tax savings was viewed as a very positive factor by our board in reaching its decision to return to Churchill in 2011."

Thayer, who previously was an executive with Breeders’ Cup, said he was more than receptive when he was approached by Breeders’ Cup officials in 2009 seeking the tax break. Thayer left the Breeders' Cup following the World Championships at Monmouth Park in 2007.

"When (Breeders’ Cup officials) came to my office in 2009, they essentially begged me to restore this incentive," Thayer said of a similar tax break that had been in place when the event was at Churchill in 2006. "I put aside any lingering personal animosity to try to do what was right for the horse industry in Kentucky."

Thayer has been vilified by many in the state’s horse racing and breeding industry for his stance on alternative gaming, which failed to pass during the 2009 special legislative session and the 2010 regular session. After passing the Democrat-controlled House last year, it was effectively killed by Senate President David Williams, a Republican who has consistently voiced his opposition to the measure.

Thayer has consistently said he favors allowing voters to consider a constitutional amendment on alternative gaming at racetracks rather than having the question decided by the legislature. As an alternative to full casino-style slots at tracks, Thayer said tracks should consider implementing Instant Racing machines, which are pari-mutuel in nature but resemble video lottery terminals.

In an opinion sought by Thayer, the state attorney general’s office ruled Instant Racing could be implemented at Kentucky tracks if the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission amends its regulations to permit it. Legislation authorizing Instant Racing was stymied by a Republican-controlled Senate committee in 2010, and the Beshear administration and KHRC have taken no action on the proposal despite the favorable ruling by the attorney general's office.

After the Breeders’ Cup tax-break legislation passed the Senate in 2009, Thayer said the bill was on "shaky" ground in the Democrat-controlled House. The lawmaker said he met with House leaders to explain the importance of the bill to Kentucky’s horse industry, and it eventually was approved by that legislative body.

Then, Thayer said, earlier this year he was told by staff of the state Finance Cabinet the law needed to be tweaked by the legislature in order for Breeders’ Cup to receive the tax break for the 2010 World Championships. The General Assembly approved Thayer’s legislation to make the change.

Thayer said the Breeders’ Cup tax break is yet another example of legislation favorable to the Kentucky horse industry during his tenure in the state Senate, but that it all gets lost in the debate over racetrack gaming.

"I hope this (Breeders’ Cup) legislation proves to the doubters that my comprehensive work on behalf of the horse industry over the last 7 1/2 years is unassailable," Thayer said. "I would like to point out that I got the incentive passed during the (2009) special session of the legislature after the slots bill failed and people in the horse industry were trying to destroy me."

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