AP/Ed Reinke

Kentucky Breeders Get Sober Message on VLTs

Don't count on video poker was the sobering message Kentucky Senate President David Williams delivered Tuesday to an informal gathering of about 35 prominent Thoroughbred breeders and their representatives.

"The gist of his remarks were: he wasn't convinced that an expansion of gaming was necessarily the best thing for the state," said Carl Pollard, chairman of Churchill Downs Inc. and owner of Hermitage Farm who attended the luncheon at Three Chimneys Farm. "He realized the importance of the Thoroughbred industry to the state of Kentucky and suggested that the industry think of other ways that the state might help the industry, such as through tax breaks or economic incentives."

The meeting was organized by Three Chimneys owner Robert Clay and others to update Williams on the state of the industry. Presentations were made by Jack Smith and John Gaines. Clay would not comment on the meeting because he said it was a private lunch held on Williams' behalf.

"Out of respect to Sen. Williams, I don't think it would be appropriate," Clay said.

Williams, however, was quite candid. He said the important message to come out of Tuesday's meeting was that many people are not convinced that video lottery terminals at racetracks will provide a long-term benefit to the Thoroughbred industry.

"There are social costs involved and if there are other ways to accomplish what we can for the farms then we need to pursue them," Williams said Wednesday. "The industry is important economically and culturally. I told them I am on their side, but I'm not convinced the VLTs and the pittance they will receive will help them."

Video lottery legislation was pursued earlier this year as a way to increase purses at Kentucky racetracks. Tracks are fighting more every year to hold onto horses and trainers being drawn to West Virginia where slot machines and video lottery have generated phenomenal purse growth. Kentucky tracks face additional competition from riverboat casinos in Indiana. The video lottery legislation passed a House subcommittee but was never introduced to the full House or Senate for a vote.

Williams said point blank he would not support video lottery because he doesn't feel it is good public policy. He was asked Tuesday whether he blocked or stalled the legislative effort this year, and Williams said he didn't.

"I told them if you get 20 votes you can move whatever you want to in the Senate; you can suspend rules and add amendments," he said. "You didn't see much activity on the other side, either, because people in the House were lukewarm, too."

Williams said he urged the Lexington breeders to develop alternatives that don't involve expanded gambling.

"You cannot depend on gambling revenues to finance government because they are too volatile," he said. "The proliferation of gambling is a never-ending situation as far as expansion. We have the lottery, but if Tennessee gets a lottery then we lose revenue from not only their residents but our own. Then people will be calling for land-based casinos to make up for the losses."

Williams also warned the breeders that whatever benefits video lottery seems to promise now, may not be what they get down the road, and what they get, they may not want. He said gambling proposals rarely offer what was promised at the beginning. The Kentucky lottery, Williams said, was passed to pay for education and eliminate the need for taxes.

"Now we have the lottery and the taxes and education didn't get the money," he said.