Casino cash no elixir for racing, look for cure within sport of kings

The Kentucky Supreme Court will soon decide whether the Kentucky Racing Commission acted properly in 2010 when it approved instant wagering — betting on past races chosen at random using a device very much like a slot machine.

There's debate about whether instant racing qualifies as pari-mutuel wagering, but there is little question that the drive for it arose out of years of unsuccessful efforts to bring casino-style gambling to Kentucky. Proponents, who argue that our signature industry is struggling to compete with gambling-infused purses and breeding subsidies in other states, have signaled that they will try again in next year's legislative session.

In 2010, we endorsed a limited expansion of gambling to slot machines at race tracks. We are not reversing course, but we think caution is in order as the debate is revived.

Looking for broader support, some gambling proposals have envisioned locations far from tracks and proceeds shared among many sectors. It's likely they would do racing more harm than good.

Reports of the death of racing and breeding in Kentucky have, to borrow a phrase, been greatly exaggerated. Kentucky's breeding industry remains the strongest in the nation by a long shot. Despite challenging weather, Keeneland's just-concluded fall meet chalked up attendance and wagering records.

Good, but not everything's fine. Kentucky's holding its own in a shrinking industry. The Jockey Club reports that between 2002 and 2012 the number of U.S. races dropped from 54,304 to 45,086, and the Thoroughbred foal crop shrank from 33,975 to 22,500. Handle, the amount bet on races, dropped 28.3 percent in the last decade.

Looking for explanations, the Jockey Club commissioned a survey of over 800 bettors, big players who wager $10,000 or more a month and more casual handicappers. The results were unambiguous. A remarkable majority cited problems with racing — drugs, questionable integrity, lack of leadership and the size of the takeout (the money removed from the betting pool before winnings are distributed) — as reasons they don't bet more. Enlightening, but not news; these issues have been around for a long time.

Changing lifestyles, competition from other sports and casinos have hurt racing, but not all its problems are external. The solutions won't be either.

While an infusion of cash from expanded gambling might be a help, the long-term health of the industry relies on doing more of what's right — Keeneland's prosperity isn't an accident — and fixing what's wrong within the industry itself.

Casino money alone won't do that. Worse, a poorly crafted gambling proposal would invite a powerful competitor in to do battle with our signature industry.

Kentucky shouldn't make that bet.