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Horsemen urged to 'keep open mind' on slots

A co-founder of the Kentucky Equine Education Project said his colleagues must "keep an open mind" as the group's board prepares to discuss Monday their diminished alternatives for getting expanded gambling at racetracks.

"We have to take the other side at their word that they do want to help solve the problems of the horse industry," said Brereton Jones, a former Democratic governor and owner of Airdrie Stud.

The defeat last week of a pro-slots Democratic candidate for the state Senate solidified Republican control of the chamber through 2010, leaving a constitutional amendment to allow slots in counties with racetracks as the only gambling proposal that probably stands a chance in the Senate during the 2010 General Assembly, which begins Jan. 5.

Previously, horse industry leaders have said the constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is "too little too late." They prefer a bill proposed earlier this year by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, that would allow slots exclusively at tracks without requiring a constitutional amendment, which voters must ratify.

The tracks cite three major objections to Thayer's constitutional amendment: It requires a statewide election and separate local votes on expanded gambling; they'd have to compete with other bidders for the right to electronic slot machines; and they'd get only 25 percent of the revenue from slots.

"We all need to keep an open mind, and try to address those objections and try to make this work," Jones said Thursday when asked about a constitutional amendment. "We have to keep an open mind to all the possibilities. We've got to save the jobs we have and create new ones. We can't just walk away from this thing now."

Lawmakers on both sides seem to agree that, with 25 percent fewer racing dates and 2,500 fewer mares, Kentucky's racetracks and horse breeders could use some help.

However, there's no bipartisan consensus that expanded gambling would cure the industry's ills. And it's not clear that Thayer and other like-minded Republicans are willing to negotiate on the details of a constitutional amendment.

"I happen to think my proposal is right for Kentucky, and nobody has given a reason to think otherwise," Thayer said Friday. "But if any interested party has an opinion on my bill they can come talk to me about it. But I'm not going to negotiate in the media ... and frankly I'm not in any negotiating mood right now. They've not particularly endeared themselves to me in the last six months."

Thayer, who chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee, said he plans to give the proposal a hearing in his committee during the early part of the upcoming legislative session.

Thayer said he thinks his bill has 23 votes, enough to win Senate approval, even though Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has said he won't back it and Senate Minority Floor Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, has said no Democrat will vote for it.

Meanwhile, Stumbo said last week that he is not inclined to put forth another bill for electronic slots at tracks unless it is at least going to make it to the floor of the Senate for a vote. His effort last June was approved by the House only to die in a Senate committee.