The Road to Frankfort

By John Gaines -- Kentucky is widely acknowledged as the horse capital of the world, the leading horse state in the United States, and the epicenter of horse industry leadership. Paradoxically, this leadership doesn't extend to our own state capital or to forging an economic partnership with fellow Kentuckians.

While other state horse industries--notably New York, Louisiana, and New Mexico--have successfully built an economic alliance with their state policy makers and citizenry to promote and grow their horse economics, our Kentucky equine interests have neither articulated a comprehensive economic agenda nor built bridges to other sectors of Kentucky, much less the corridors of the state capitol in Frankfort. The result has been piecemeal legislative recipes and strategic apathy. Adding insult to injury, this year's annual debate over gaming at racetracks--which has now been rejected in three successive legislative sessions--was nearly hijacked by casino lobbyists intent on exporting their Indiana- and Ohio River-based, barge-floating gambling halls to land-based Vegas-style saloons in the Kentucky heartland.

Notwithstanding its captaincy of a critical $4-billion, 50,000-job economic enterprise, the horse industry is perceived as blueblood, Bluegrass hobbyists who can self-finance their own trade and commerce. A recent survey showed about two out of three voters with an opinion were opposed to extending state tax incentives now enjoyed by other agribusinesses to horse farming. Many were mystified as to why an allegedly well-heeled industry needed a tax break and indeed whether horse farming was really farming. Statistics, on the other hand, show that the average horse farm in Kentucky is a four-person, $50,000 net income operation.

Despite its importance as Kentucky's top agricultural cash crop and signature attraction for the Commonwealth's $9-billion tourism industry, the state has levied punitive taxes on stud fees and feed. In-state purchases of horses are penalized with a 6% fee while out-of-state purchases are exempt. The state-sponsored Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund stands at a meager $9 million, a quarter of comparable New York state programs and far less than states like Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Louisiana.

Until a recent political changing of the guard in the gubernatorial mansion in Frankfort, promotion of the horse industry was an afterthought. While the state's political and industry establishment slept, hundreds of broodmares and stallions--including almost the entirety of the Standardbred industry--left for greener pastures.

The genesis of this political leadership vacuum is no farther away than the nearest mirror for those of us in Kentucky's horse industry. Recently, with the formation of the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP), the state industry took a giant step forward to commit resources and resolve to champion a new era in the state's storied equine history.

This effort extends to all breeds of horses. Through speaker programs and dissemination of fact-based information, we are taking the message of the economic importance of the horse economy beyond the rolling Bluegrass to the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, the lakes of western Kentucky, and to the suburbs of northern Kentucky. A standing horse economy grassroots militia is in development in all 120 counties from some of the state's 128,000 horse economy participants. An alliance is being fostered with other economic sectors, including state and local chambers, rotaries, business, labor, and trade associations.

This past January at a gathering of the rank and file of this industry, we were discouraged by the industry's paid Hessian lobbyists from going to Frankfort to address growing concerns about the state of the industry and escalating competition outside our borders. This coming February, KEEP will mobilize horse economy stakeholders to the capital to meet with lawmakers and to advocate a pro-jobs and economic opportunities agenda based on the growth of the Kentucky horse economy. The end result will be a new political paradigm in Frankfort and creation of a progressive economic partnership for the state that can only bode well for a future worthy of this industry's great past.

JOHN GAINES is a founder of the Breeders' Cup, National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and the Kentucky Horse Park. He is the honorary chairman of the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP).