Grand Opportunity

By Jim Squires
Being both an incurable reformer and a glutton for punishment, it is hard not to be envious of the opportunity Gov. Ernie Fletcher has given his newly constituted Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.

For someone who loves Kentucky's great signature industry, what better public service challenge than a chance to erase the disgrace the old Kentucky Racing Commission had become. The authority's new chairman, William Street, a former president of Brown-Forman, can take a major step in that direction simply by showing up for work carrying his integrity, a scarce commodity among regulators of late.

As a top-notch corporate executive, Street's first task no doubt will be to write a job description for himself and set a clear objective for his new group. And that is no longer as easy as it once was.

Traditionally, appointment to head the racing commission in the most important of all racing states has been the prize plum of Kentucky political patronage, a reward to the best and highest-rolling political fund-raiser. And how to regulate racing and pari-mutuel wagering was clearly spelled out by law that shifted with the political winds. In recent years, Kentucky racing commissions have most often been whatever the governor and the legislature wanted them to be. With few exceptions, this has meant a poorly-written, under-funded, and sometimes embarrassingly lethargic effort that has prevented Kentucky from distinguishing itself from what is generally abysmal racing regulation nationwide.

During the last four years what should and could be a model for the rest of the country has languished in scandal and incompetence, while squandering resources such as executive director Bernard J. Hettel, a respected professional forced to spend most of his effort laboring under budget cuts and criminal investigations. As former Gov. Paul Patton himself proved, it is hard to lead while dodging indictments and shameful headlines.

If Gov. Fletcher expects no more from his new authority than better manners and improved respectability, then that once sweet political plum is nothing but a shriveled prune. Presiding from a Derby box over a continued decline in the prestige of Kentucky racing while the heart of it--the 80,000-job breeding industry and $5-billion economic benefit--stops beating is hardly an appointment worth having.

The sad truth is that the business the new authority oversees is sick, maybe even terminally ill. Pari-mutuel wagering, its economic foundation, is beset by perennially declining racetrack attendance and competition from other forms of gambling, and is reeling under an already onerous tax burden. And the sport itself is suicidal, driven by longstanding political and marketing ineptitude, the incessant drug abuse by vets and trainers, and internal conflict over whether to become its worst enemy--a casino.

Nowhere is meaningful reform more important than in Kentucky, where the law insanely allows casinos to own tracks and be awarded racing dates and where despite its long history of economic importance, the horse business is so misunderstood by the public that it can be disdainfully ignored by the politicians. An inability to agree on anything but a Kentucky Derby in May and to follow any leader other than Churchill Downs has left tracks at the mercy of riverboat gamblers and the breeders more irrelevant than ever.

That the new racing authority appears to be short on the so-called "leaders" of the horse business may turn out to be its great strength. Because once the sales companies, breeders, jockeys, trainers, veterinarians, owners, gamblers, and track operators have laid out their diverse and contradictory agendas, the governor's new authority will find it hard to believe they are all dependent on the same animal. And it will become readily apparent that along with the daunting task of regulating those who want no regulation, the new authority has a chance to define and lead an industry unable to define or lead itself. What better and truly enviable public service?

JIM SQUIRES, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, is an author and Thoroughbred breeder who served on the Kentucky Racing Commission from 1992-96. He owns Two Bucks Farm near Versailles, Ky.