Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said Bluegrass horse farms need expanded gambling to survive.
In an interview Wednesday, Gray pushed for expanded gambling to address the "clear signs of distress" he's seen at horse farms in the area.
"We must recognize that time is the critical factor. It's clear that revenue from expanded gaming is essential to the future of the horse industry," Gray said. "If a constitutional amendment is timely, I can support it; if it's not, I will support a responsible and legal alternative. But we all need to understand that while we are waiting, the industry is leaving."
He concedes there are few concrete steps he can take as mayor.
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"Obviously, that's up to the legislature. But I can be an advocate. That's what I'm doing today by speaking out on this issue," he said.
Gray will host legislators at a reception at his home later this month and urge them to consider tackling gambling again.
Patrick Neely, spokesman for the Kentucky Equine Education Project, said Gray's support is "extremely significant."
"It's important for elected leaders across the state at all levels to recognize the equine industry and what it means in terms of jobs and economic development," Neely said. "And to recognize that the industry faces a competitive imbalance and threats to what Kentucky's known for worldwide."
Gray said that in the past he supported a referendum on expanded gambling, such as a constitutional amendment, but that after meeting with a cross-section of those in the horse industry, including Three Chimneys owner Robert Clay, he is convinced that swift action is needed.
"What's occurring is an erosion of this industry out from under us. The sands are shifting under our feet," Gray said. "This is all about retaining a competitive position. ... We are a target. The funds from gaming are clearly the big influence because the purses are being influenced by the gaming revenues."
Kentucky breeders, racetracks, racehorse owners and others in the industry have long argued that the tracks need alternative forms of gambling, such as slots or full-fledged casinos, to compete with other states that have it.
Louisiana, Indiana and Pennsylvania have used gambling revenue to boost purses that draw racehorses and to boost incentive funds that attract broodmares and stallions.
Gov. Steve Beshear campaigned on a promise to push for expanded gambling, but his efforts and a bill sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, both failed in the state legislature.
Stumbo said just before the start of this year's session of the General Assembly that gambling probably won't be on the agenda.
Gray wants lawmakers to try again. He doesn't think it is too late for slots in Kentucky.
"It's essential to take the steps from a public policy point of view to support an industry and to do all you can to keep it competitive," he said.
Sales of horses are down, Kentucky tracks have cut racing days, and purses here are losing ground to other states, Gray said.
The only option is expanded gambling, he said; nothing else put forth so far will generate as much money.
Gray also is worried that losing horse farms will cost Lexington the rural landscape that defines the city.
"It's what brands Lexington as special and unique and authentic," he said. "If you care about the garden landscape that surrounds the city, we must care about the horse industry. They are inseparable. ... If our rural landscape is important, the financial health of the horse industry is critical."
And he isn't worried that bringing gambling to Lexington will be detrimental to the city. Concerns about where a casino or slots parlor would go can be addressed through responsible planning.
"I don't want to turn Bedford Falls into Potterville. I'm all about Bedford Falls," Gray said.