Governor-elect Ernie Fletcher could help Kentucky horse industry.

Governor-elect Ernie Fletcher could help Kentucky horse industry.

Associated Press

Early Returns: Fletcher Win Positive for Kentucky Industry

Racing industry officials in Kentucky are taking a wait-and-see approach in the wake of the election of Republican Congressman Ernie Fletcher as governor, but a few said Fletcher's representation of the horse industry in Washington, D.C. bodes well for Kentucky.

Fletcher is the first Republican governor elected in 32 years in Kentucky, where the racing industry the last two years has lobbied unsuccessfully for racetrack gaming. Fletcher has said he is against expansion of gambling but wouldn't stand in the way of a referendum for a constitutional amendment on the issue.

Earlier this year, the Democrat-controlled House warmed to legislation to authorize electronic gaming devices at the state's eight racetracks, but the measure had very little support in the Republican-controlled Senate. In 2004, there will be a Republican in the governor's mansion, but industry observers said it's far too early to say that would make a big difference.

Turfway Park president Bob Elliston, who served as spokesman for the racetracks during the 2003 legislative session, said he supported Fletcher and expects the horse industry in the state to benefit.

"In Washington, D.C., he has an outstanding record of supporting the horse industry," Elliston said. "He's from Central Kentucky and understands the value of the industry from a racing and a breeding perspective. I think we'll do just fine with Ernie Fletcher as governor."

As for racetrack gaming, Elliston said it would be "premature" to discuss its chances of passage in 2004.

David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, also cited Fletcher's record in Washington, D.C., and the fact he stressed the importance of the equine industry during his campaign against Democratic challenger Ben Chandler. Switzer said the KTA is prepared to work closely with the governor's office and the Department of Agriculture, which will be headed by Republican Richie Farmer.

"There are a lot of issues that affect the industry aside from the gaming issue," Switzer said. "There are a lot of things the Department of Agriculture is involved in. What we'll be doing, beginning today, is building relationships."

During a brief presentation Nov. 4 at the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers' Club meeting, Switzer touched on several things the KTA's agenda, including a national uniform medication policy, immigration legislation, loans to breeders, and the state of the Lexington Disease Diagnostic Center. "Our diagnostic lab is a disgrace, and the University of Kentucky knows it is," Switzer said.

The lab figured prominently in discussions during the most recent meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Horse Farming. The non-partisan committee has been meeting almost monthly to educate legislators on issues of importance to the state's equine industry.

Chandler, during the campaign, said he was in favor of expanded gambling in part to help the state balance its budget. He received much support from the horse industry, though observers said many individuals and organizations probably supported both candidates to hedge their bets.

When Switzer announced at the election-night farm managers' club meeting it appeared as though Fletcher had beaten Chandler, you could have heard a pin drop. There was no applause, but observers said that's no surprise given the fact Chandler had support within the horse farming community.

"I predict the horse industry will be very pleased with the Fletcher administration," said Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, also an executive with Lexington-based Breeders' Cup. "He was a great congressman for the horse industry, and probably will be a great governor for the horse industry. I look forward to working with the new governor on issues important to the horse industry."

Thayer is co-chair of the Subcommittee on Horse Farming. He already has pre-filed bills to eliminate a 6% sales tax on stud fees and other taxes on feed, equipment, and other supplies related to horse farming.

Thayer, who believes a constitutional amendment is the only way to go on the issue of expanded gambling, also said it's too soon to discuss its prospects for next year. Among those who have come out in favor of a public vote are Brereton Jones, owner of Airdrie Stud near Midway, Ky., and former Democratic governor of Kentucky.

There has been much speculation the last few years about why expanded gaming has failed to garner legislative support--everything from personal vendettas to a dislike for Churchill Downs--even though all facets of the racing industry have been on the same page. Republican Sen. David Williams has fought the effort, as has Don Ball, a Thoroughbred owner who has supported the Republican Party in the state through lean times. Ball is expected to play a key role in the Fletcher administration in regard to the racing industry, observers said.

The makeup of the Kentucky Racing Commission probably will undergo changes, and Ball could play a role in that as well, sources said. The terms of all 11 commissioners appointed under Gov. Paul Patton have expired, though there's always an outside chance a few could be reappointed before Patton leaves office.