Legislature: Approve slots at tracks

Ad promoting Indiana breeding incentives, aided by slots money
Ad promoting Indiana breeding incentives, aided by slots money

Since Kentucky's debate over expanded gambling began nearly two decades ago, the Herald-Leader consistently has supported letting the state's voters decide the issue via a constitutional amendment.

A variety of reasons led us to adopt this stance, including but not limited to our belief that it would be the most acceptable route politically, would be less likely to become entangled in a lengthy legal battle, would be the best way to limit the proliferation of gambling facilities and would provide the state's signature horse racing industry a guarantee of assistance it could never find in legislation subject to being rewritten every year.

We reiterated our position as recently as the 2009 special legislative session in which the House of Representatives passed a racetrack slots bill we opposed. (It died in the Senate.) At the time, we urged lawmakers and Gov. Steve Beshear to delay action on the issue until the 2010 General Assembly, when an amendment could be considered.

But no amendment emerged from this year's session. And it has become evident the Democrats who have a hammerlock on the House have no intention of putting an amendment on the ballot that could bring conservative voters out in droves the way the 2004 same-sex marriage amendment did.

Even if they were interested in doing so, the state can't go the amendment route until 2012; and that may be too late to save racing as we have known it in Kentucky over the past several decades.

So, today, we are reversing course. It is not something we do often, nor something we ever do without good reasons and serious reflection.

But we have watched the good reasons for changing our position mount in recent months and years as Kentucky tracks have experienced canceled racing dates and races, fewer stakes races and shorter fields and reduced purses in the races that are being run.

Some of that can be attributed to the ongoing recession and the contraction of an industry that had overextended itself nationwide.

But the economy and the industry contraction can't account for the owners and trainers who are taking their racing stables from Kentucky to the monetarily greener pastures of "racino" states where they can run for slots-supplemented purses as much as four times larger than Kentucky tracks offer on a given day.

Nor do the economy and the industry contraction account for the stallions and mares departing for states where revenue from expanded gambling supplements breeding incentives.

It has become evident "racino" states want to expand their racing and breeding industries at the expense of Kentucky's. The ad from the Indiana Thoroughbred Breed Development Program pictured at right and featured in recent editions of Bloodhorse and Thoroughbred Times is just the latest example.

And it will only get worse for Kentucky racing now that casino gambling is coming to Ohio. The big casino planned for downtown Cincinnati could be fatal for the future of Turfway Park (not to mention Ohio's racetracks, including two in the Cincinnati area, that are pushing for slots).

With slots, Turfway probably could hold its own. Without them, probably not. Turfway — and Ellis Park in Western Kentucky — are at risk now even without the additional competition from Ohio, which is why waiting for 2012 is problematic for Kentucky racing.

If either closes, it will create a large hole in the year-round racing circuit this state has had for several decades.

Small and medium-sized Kentucky racing operations, the ones who need year-round racing opportunities to survive, will go where they can find them. More breeding operations will be leaving as well. Thousands of jobs directly or indirectly tied to the industry in this state will disappear.

A limited amount of racing will go on at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Breeding will continue in the Bluegrass, because no one does it better than we do here.

But without the year-round circuit, without the "little guys" of racing and breeding, we will revert to the day when Kentucky racing was, if not the "Sport of Kings," pretty much a "Sport of the Rich." And that's not the future for Kentucky racing we prefer.

So, today, because we believe it is vital to save a year-round circuit for the state's signature industry, we endorse legislative approval of racetrack slots at the earliest possible opportunity. And we encourage the governor, slots supporters in the General Assembly and the state's horse industry to redouble their efforts to overcome whatever obstacles are necessary to make it happen.