Lisa Underwood announced Oct. 24 she will step down as executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to take a job with Wyatt, Tarrant, and Combs, a Lexington law firm for which she had worked previously.
Underwood will begin her new job as an equine and business attorney Nov. 16. She was appointed KHRC executive director five years ago under former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher and has continued to work under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
Underwood made the announcement during the monthly KHRC meeting. Deputy executive director Marc Guilfoil will serve as interim executive director while a nationwide search is conducted for Underwood’s successor.
“This was a difficult decision to make, one I did not make lightly,” said Underwood, whose tenure at KHRC has seen the regulatory body work its way through some major issues, including overhauling the state’s medication rules.
More recently, however, the accomplishments of the organization have been overshadowed by the lengthy and costly investigation into the Life At Ten incident at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs.
Underwood said she had a “long list” of goals when she was appointed, including revamping Kentucky’s equine medication and drug-testing regulations.
“I’m proud of the accomplishments that have been made during my time at the KHRC, and much of that credit goes to the staff of the KHRC as well as the commissioners who have worked tirelessly to help me accomplish our goals,” Underwood said.
Underwood led the racing commission’s implementation of many of the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on the Future of Horse Racing in Kentucky, including the hiring of the first supervisor of pari-mutuel wagering and licensing of totalizator companies and advanced deposit wagering companies. She also spearheaded the effort to hire Kentucky’s first equine medical director and establishment of an equine testing lab in Lexington.
“Her leadership in implementing the many positive changes to the way the industry and the public participate in horse racing has been tremendous,” Beshear said in a statement.
“The advancements made under Lisa’s leadership will forever change the face of horse racing in the Commonwealth,” KHRC chairman Robert Beck said in a statement. “Her sole desire has been to address the integrity and safety issues inherent with racing, and I believe she leaves her post with the knowledge that she has helped make that happen.
Underwood’s resignation comes nearly a year after the Life At Ten investigation that resulted in charges being brought against the KHRC’s chief steward, John Veitch.
Life At Ten, owned by Candy DeBartolo and trained by Todd Pletcher, finished last in the Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) as the second choice at odds of 7-2. With jockey John Velazquez aboard, Life At Ten had no run when the field left the gate, and she was not persevered with throughout the race.
The KHRC launched an investigation that included a review of comments Velazquez made to retired jockey Jerry Bailey, who was assisting with the ESPN coverage of the Breeders’ Cup, prior to the race. The jockey said Life At Ten was not warming up as she normally does, but did not relay those concerns to the stewards or any KHRC veterinarians.
The investigation looked into, among other things, who had knowledge of Velazquez’ comments prior to the race and whether action should have been taken to have the filly inspected and/or scratched. A report stemming from the investigation determined there was no intentional wrongdoing, but it cited a sequence of communication breakdowns and some vagueness about responsibilities that led to questions about what action should have been taken before and after the race with regard to Life At Ten.
The KHRC found probable cause that Velazquez and Veitch had violated rules of racing in connection with the incident. Though he did not admit to violating any rules of racing, Velazquez paid a $10,000 fine, half of which went to charity.
The case against Veitch is pending, with the two parties having spent more than $100,000 on the case. A hearing officer is working on a report and recommendation stemming from three days of hearings that were conducted this summer.
During the hearing, Veitch testified about possible friction among KHRC staff members and some disagreements between him and Underwood.
“We had some problems with her interference in what I felt should be decision-making by the office of the stewards,” Veitch said at the time. “I felt like Miss Underwood was stepping a little over the line.”
Underwood has served on the board of directors and executive committee of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, as well as serving on the RCI Model Rules Committee, RCI Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee, and RCI Wagering Security Systems Committee.
Underwood was also on the national steering committee for the Interstate Racing and Wagering Compact. She was instrumental in drafting and promoting the interstate racing and wagering compact legislation, which was adopted by the Kentucky legislature this year.
In 2009 she was the recipient of the Len Foote Award from RCI for outstanding achievements and contributions to the racing industry.