Just over a year ago, this column chided Kentucky's Thoroughbred owners and breeders for their lack of commitment to political action in the state capital of Frankfort.
The Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, representing the interests of owners and breeders, had a paltry $5,000 war chest for lobbying Kentucky's legislators. The state's No. 1 industry lacked any political clout.
How that has changed. The Kentucky Equine Education Project was formed in May 2004, a multi-million-dollar fund-raiser was held in December, and the all-breeds organization already has made its political presence felt. The General Assembly recently approved a plan supported by Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher that will divert taxes on stud fees into an incentive fund to benefit breeders of Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and other breeds. That fund should amount to in excess of $15 million annually, more than 80% of which is earmarked for Thoroughbred breeders through a program to be determined by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. The revenue for the Thoroughbred fund will almost be equal to the prize money for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.
Legislators also approved a tax exemption for out-of-state buyers of racing prospects in Kentucky. Previously, buyers could avoid paying the tax by shipping horses out of state soon after purchase, which KEEP officials correctly pointed out had a negative impact on Kentucky's farm economy.
Those two legislative victories measure up well against the lone setback, a failed effort to repeal a tax that horse farmers pay on fencing, farm equipment, and feed. It's discriminatory in that other types of farmers (cattle, hogs, etc.) are not subject to the tax.
KEEP's mission extends beyond lobbying legislators. First and foremost is an educational campaign that will target citizens in all 120 Kentucky counties. The organization is putting together team leaders for each county, with the individuals responsible for carrying the horse industry message to various civic and service organizations. A public awareness advertising campaign also was launched, starting with a series of billboards, somewhat facetiously, heralding Florida, New York, and West Virginia as the "Horse Capital of the World." The next wave included television advertising that reminded Kentuckians that horses are the state's No. 1 industry.
KEEP's political war chest will allow the horse industry to help fund campaigns of candidates who support them, or, conversely, to back the opponents of politicians who do not understand the importance of the industry to Kentucky.
The late John Gaines was a major force in the creation of KEEP and was the organization's honorary chairman. Former Democratic Gov.
Brereton Jones, the master of Airdrie Stud, is KEEP chairman and a key architect of the strategy to educate residents across the state. Another major player in the horse industry's legislative success in 2005 is Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer, who has both the ear and confidence of Gov. Fletcher.
There is work ahead. Several racing states have the economic advantage of current or pending slot machine revenue to enhance purses and breeder incentive programs. Out-of-state migration of mares from Kentucky, already a concern to horse farmers, will only accelerate once slot machines are fully operational in New York. Pennsylvania will be the next to add slots, and Florida's Gulfstream Park won recent approval in a local referendum and could be next in line.
The slots revenue is good news for breeders operating in those states, which is bad news for Kentucky and the state's signature industry. It is a political issue that, in the past, has been defined by casino interests and racetrack lobbyists. Fortunately for Kentucky's horse industry, it now has a strong voice in Frankfort that will be heard.