The presence of U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning as guest speaker at a Jan. 6 dinner honoring the breeders of the eight Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championship races is symbolic of the progress the horse industry is making in Washington, D.C.
Bunning, a first-term Republican, previously served 12 years in the House of Representatives. He has been a strong supporter of the horse industry, as noted by National Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioner Tim Smith, who made the introduction of Bunning at the awards dinner. Bunning was instrumental in the passage of an amendment to the Interstate Horse Racing Act in December 2000, which removed any doubts about the legality of interstate simulcasting or account wagering via telephones or the Internet.
More recently, Kentucky's junior senator helped pass a financial relief package with low-interest loans for breeders affected by mare reproductive loss syndrome. Bunning has first-hand knowledge of how MRLS can hit home: His son and daughter-in-law, who were partners in the multiple stakes winner Bourbon Belle, lost foals from the mysterious killer.
Bunning is the kind of guy you want to have fighting for you--not against you. A former pitcher with the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies who was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame, Bunning told a story at the Breeders' Cup dinner about drilling New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle in the back because the first base coach was stealing signs from Bunning's catcher. That took some guts.
Bunning's support of the Thoroughbred industry is nothing new, and, fortunately, he isn't alone in his convictions. Every member of Kentucky's congressional delegation understands the importance of the industry to the state and has voted accordingly on legislation affecting it. In his talk, Bunning said he was once chided in a New York Times article for currying favor to what was described as a "special interest"-- the Thoroughbred industry. Years later, he seemed to take delight in the criticism.
The truth is, until the last couple of years, the horse industry barely had the financial clout in the nation's capital to be viewed as a special interest. The American Horse Council was woefully underfunded, compared to lobbying organizations for industries like casinos and lotteries.
But 2001 was a landmark year for the horse industry in Washington. In addition to getting MRLS-related financial relief, the industry will benefit from the formation of a congressional caucus headed by House members Karen Thurmond of Florida and Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky. One of the first things the caucus did last Sep-tember was visit two Maryland horse farms. In October, a half-dozen congressmen, including the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, attended the World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont Park.
It is not a coincidence that these good things started to happen the same year that the NTRA dramatically increased its lobbying budget to $900,000, giving the American Horse Council a much higher presence. It hopes to double the amount available for political spending in 2002.
Horse owners and consignors fund the lobbying program through a voluntary checkoff of one-fourth of 1% of the amount paid for horses at public auction. Unfortunately, the rate of participation in the checkoff program may be falling, which the NTRA's Smith acknowledged Jan. 3 at a meeting of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club.
Admittedly, many owners are tightening their budgets in 2002 and breeders are bracing for the double whammy of a recession and MRLS. But this is no time to back off from supporting the horse industry in our nation's capital.
A .25% checkoff amounts to just $250 on the purchase or sale of a $100,000 yearling. Those contributions can make a difference. In fact, they already have.