Op-Ed

Fractured horse biz paddling upstream on De Nile

Instant racing machines at Kentucky Downs in Franklin.
Instant racing machines at Kentucky Downs in Franklin.

FRANKFORT — In February 1994, former Keeneland President Ted Bassett told a state legislative committee, "We are not going to cave in to a hypothetical threat of a mythical armada (of riverboat casinos) cruising down the Ohio (River) from Ashland to Paducah ... "

Bassett later acknowledged the riverboats now moored along the Ohio opposite Kentucky population centers from the Cincinnati area to Paducah, along with the ability of tracks in "racino" states to supplement purses with revenue from expanded gambling, turned a supposed "hypothetical threat" to Kentucky's Thoroughbred racing industry into a very real one.

But his 1994 comments came to mind again after the Kentucky Equine Education Project said it no longer supports legalizing casino gambling in Kentucky, at least not for now. Instead, the group embraces "instant racing" as the industry's salvation. This course reversal means KEEP is now paddling upstream on the same river in Egypt where Bassett breasted the current 20-plus years ago, the river known as De Nile.

Call it "instant racing," "historical racing," "slot machines disguised as racing" or even "slot car racing," the game now offered by Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park and soon to be in a venue near you falls way, way short of salvation for the industry or the state.

Yes, instant racing flourishes at Kentucky Downs in Franklin. And it should flourish in the Corbin area after Keeneland buys Thunder Ridge in Prestonsburg and moves the track closer to an interstate highway. No competition lies just across the Tennessee border from either location.

But instant racing hasn't exactly flourished at Ellis Park in Henderson because a full-fledged riverboat casino with all the bells and whistles and multiple gaming options does lie just across an Ohio River bridge in Indiana.

Churchill Downs in Louisville and Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky face the same kind of competition. Even the planned instant racing parlor at the Red Mile in Lexington, to be operated jointly with Keeneland, could suffer because real casinos lie just an hour or so away.

Old fogies' memories being what they are, I can't say with absolute certainty, but I'm fairly sure my advocacy for casino gambling in Kentucky predated Bassett's "mythical armada" comments. I didn't write a column about it until a couple of years later; but I recall arguing, unsuccessfully, for the Herald-Leader editorial board to endorse the concept when the first riverboat casino docked on the Ohio.

My initial support had nothing to do with racing because the competition from "racino" states was minimal at the time. It had everything to do with the sheer stupidity, no, the sheer fiscal lunacy of sitting idly by watching hundreds of millions of Kentucky dollars annually flow across the Ohio into other states' economies and other states' tax bases.

Frankly, all the spineless politicians who succumbed to this lunacy during the past two decades qualify for KFC's menu because it is such a no-brainer.

Whatever negative consequences casino gambling causes, Kentucky suffers them now due to the casinos just outside our borders. What we don't get are the economic and revenue benefits from having the casinos within our borders.

Once the problem presented by larger purses at tracks in "racino" states became apparent, my general support for casino gambling broadened to support for casino gambling that offered some benefit to one of Kentucky's signature industries. At one point, I was even willing to settle for racetrack slots as the first step toward reaching the ultimate goal.

I'm still there for casino gambling and for Thoroughbred racing.

Here's the thing, though. From day one in this debate, the biggest impediment to getting casino gambling done in this state has been the Kentucky Thoroughbred racing industry's inability to ever get its act together.

Over the past 20 years, the industry has gone back and forth between support for a constitutional amendment on slots at racetracks in the '90s (when Bassett's "mythical armada" comments highlighted Keeneland's outlier status among state racetracks) to casinos completely controlled by tracks (including a comical 2008 proposal so detailed it fell just short of specifying in constitutional concrete what brand of oats horses at participating tracks could consume) to legislative approval of racetrack slots to a constitutional amendment that gave tracks control of some but not all casinos. And through all of these unsuccessful efforts, disparate elements of the industry have been working at odds with each other.

Now, KEEP has bailed on casino gambling. Churchill Downs, no longer a member of KEEP, still supports casino gambling. And Keeneland, the other big player in the game and also no longer a member of KEEP, may or may not support casino gambling but isn't pushing it at the moment.

Which brings me to the bottom line: Until all elements of Kentucky's Thoroughbred racing industry come together behind a consistent message and goal on casinos that they stick with year after year after year, they and this state will continue to suffer the loss of gambling dollars that could be benefiting our economy and revenue base and our racetracks' purse structure.

Although I'll continue to wave the flag on the issue, KEEP's course reversal and the fractured status of the industry's position it highlighted assure me I will be reduced to cremated ashes long before the lunacy ends.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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