Kentucky legislators, seemingly receptive to the plight of the state's horse racing and breeding industry, indicated a willingness Friday to consider any proposal for assistance as long as the industry is on the same page. At a committee hearing in Frankfort, Ky., the issue of alternative gaming came up at least indirectly, and no one flinched.
During the two-hour meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Licensing and Occupations, racing officials reiterated points they made during the series of traveling Kentucky Racing Commission hearings this summer. Their message? Gambling competition from neighboring states has put Kentucky's racing industry at a competitive disadvantage, and things are getting worse.
Once again, Turfway Park president Bob Elliston said the Northern Kentucky facility's 197 acres could prove more valuable for other uses in the near future even though Turfway was the "eighth- or ninth-most wagered-on track in the country" last year by virtue of its 110-plus live racing days.
"So what you're saying is there is an unfair competitive situation whereby Turfway is going to go out of business if we don't level the playing field," Rep. Joe Draud said to Elliston. "If we as policymakers want this great tradition of Thoroughbred racing to continue, we need to come to grips with this casino issue."
"Every time I drive by Turfway, the figures you gave us seem more and more apparent," Rep. Paul Marcotte said. "The value for the land is there -- anybody with an eye for business can see that. You've got my attention. I don't want to see (the track close)."
Rep. Denver Butler, who chairs the legislative committee, said the factions within Kentucky's racing industry "have a history of fighting like cats and dogs." He urged racing officials to come up with a plan, but also acknowledged that tax cuts -- one option that has been discussed -- probably won't be on the table in light of a budget shortfall.
"We need to come up with something drastic," Butler said. "We need something that hasn't been done before. I've spoken to enough members of this committee, and they're willing to sit down and work with you."
Industry officials have been reluctant to discuss alternative forms of gaming even though their presentations have regularly touched on racetracks with video lottery terminals or slot machines. Mike Sadler, who heads the mutuel clerks' union in the state, posed the question of whether Kentucky racing should imitate racing in states with alternative gaming. He also acknowledged that some of his members are concerned that gaming at the tracks could trigger a loss of jobs on the mutuel lines.
"We've been hearing about places like Mountaineer Park, which offers 51 weeks of bad racing," Sadler said. "They bet $100,000 live on track (each racing day), and give away $145,000 a day in purses. And the West Virginia dog tracks are just an excuse for slot machines."
Racing officials take a different view of Mountaineer. They said the West Virginia track is luring horses away from Kentucky tracks, in particular Turfway, and thus the quality of racing has improved.
"Horses are leaving us to go to Mountaineer on a daily basis," said Rogers Beasley, director of racing at Keeneland, which operates training centers in the Lexington area. "The downward spiral is going to hurt Kentucky racing for a long time."