Stumbo bill for slots at tracks still a long shot

FRANKFORT — House Speaker Greg Stumbo may be on solid legal ground when he says racetrack slots can be approved without a constitutional amendment.

Politically, though, the earth beneath that argument trembles quite a bit. Polls indicate 80 percent of Kentucky voters want to make the call on expanded gambling themselves, and lawmakers who want to extend their careers don't often vote against the wishes of 80 percent of the public.

So, Stumbo will find it difficult to move his slots legislation very far in this year's General Assembly. A proposed amendment, particularly one that includes a few casinos not associated with tracks, would have a better chance — not much better, perhaps, given the opposition of Senate Republican leaders, but at least better.

Legalities and politics aside, Stumbo definitely is correct about the danger ahead for Kentucky's racing industry, if it doesn't win the right to supplement purses and breeding incentives with profits from some form of expanded gambling.

Fifteen of the nation's top 20 tracks now benefit or soon will benefit from expanded gambling in their respective states. Their ability to offer larger purses and incentives puts Kentucky's racing industry at a huge competitive disadvantage.

Thoroughbred racing as we know it in Kentucky relies on four tracks — Churchill Downs, Keene-land, Turfway and Ellis Park — to provide a year-round circuit that offers constant work for everyone in the business.

Owners, trainers and breeders already are leaving this circuit for the greener (as in long green) grass in states with supplemented purses and incentives. If any one of Kentucky's tracks found itself unable to attract enough horses to sustain meets and shut down, creating a gap in the circuit, that exodus would multiply exponentially.

Small and medium racing operations, the heart and soul of the industry, would have no choice but to leave. They need a year-round circuit to survive.

Churchill and Keeneland can survive despite the competitive disadvantage they face now, thanks to such rainmaking activities as the Kentucky Derby and the Keeneland sales.

But the same can't be said for Turfway and Ellis Park. Their struggle to stay open gets tougher each time another track in another state boosts its purses with supplements from expanded gambling.

The threat to the state's signature industry is real, and it's imminent. And even though I would prefer a constitutional amendment on full casinos, racetrack slots are preferable to nothing at all. So, I hope Stumbo proves me wrong about the politics of this issue.

But he's not going to improve his chances by continuing to make the ridiculous argument that, rather than being expanded gambling, racetrack slots would just be another game offered at a venue where gambling already exists, much like the Kentucky Lottery Corp. rolling out a new scratch-off ticket.

No new scratch-off ticket I've heard of has the capacity to produce the $1.2 billion in taxable revenue and the $340 million annual take for the state that Stumbo predicts racetrack slots will do by the fifth year of operations.

Whether tracks get slots by statute or a broader constitutional amendment allowing casinos wins voter approval, we're talking a big-time expansion of gambling in Kentucky. Any argument to the contrary insults everyone's intelligence.

And a guy who is widely believed to have his eye on the biggest office on the Capitol's first floor really shouldn't go there.

Speaking of gambling, Gov. Steve Beshear's folks need to give up their attempt to seize the domain names of 141 Internet gambling sites.

On Tuesday, the state Court of Appeals disagreed with the administration's argument that domain names are "gambling devices" under state law. As a result, the court's very sensible ruling said, Kentucky lacks jurisdiction in this case. But the administration plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

From the outset, this had the look of the administration tilting at windmills. And even if the state's novel legal arguments had prevailed, new gambling sites would pop up the next day.

And the Kentuckians who want to gamble on the Internet would find them.

Now, it appears the state's arguments are suspect. So, why waste everyone's time and effort with an appeal?