UK seeks equine lab partnership

FRANKFORT — The University of Kentucky wants to be a partner in potential efforts to establish a top-quality equine drug-testing and research lab in the state.

The project is likely to be recommended to Gov. Steve Beshear next month by a task force that he appointed to find ways to help the racing industry.

"The present opinion is that this is something the state must do," Len Heller, UK vice president for commercialization and economic development, told a panel of the task force on Tuesday. "I think this is a great project and I think this is something you should reach for the sky on."

Heller said UK, or the entity the state creates, could take the lead in the partnership.

"What I am prepared to do, if we get this deal structured, is go back and ask for certain things, but some of those would require board of trustees' approval," Heller said.

He and Nancy Cox, head of research for the College of Agriculture, outlined some areas in which the university could contribute, including legal advice, work-force development, equine research and testing programs, and experience in finding grants.

"(We're) very committed to adding value to this project," Cox said. "We would be able to have a joint appointment for the director of the lab ... which could help with paying salary."

UK has about 30 graduate students dedicated to horse-health research, and a new equine undergraduate program, in partnership with the University of Louisville's equine economics and business program, is in its second year, she said.

She also said that UK is pursuing another project that fits with the expanded Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center that is under construction in Lexington.

"We are in very preliminary discussions about how an animal health center might be appropriate for UK, which does not have a veterinary school," she said.

Bob Beck, a Lexington attorney who heads the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and chairs the panel, said he was pleased to hear so much support for the project, which could cost at least $5 million just to get off the ground.

"I was enthused about the University of Kentucky's interest in the project, and I've had several conversations with people in state government and they are enthused about it," Beck said. "I've gotten some comments from people in the industry who have said if Kentucky's going to develop a lab and it's going to be world class, then great. If not, then it's not worth doing."

Warren Nash, of the Economic Development Cabinet, said the state could help with tax credits and/or forgivable loans, depending on whether the structure is for-profit, not-for-profit or non-profit.

Nash also said that a top-quality lab would be right on target for the state's high-tech job-creation programs. "This would be on the fast track, and it falls right within our focus areas," he said.

State money also could be available to match federal funds up to certain levels to help buy expensive lab equipment and meet regulatory requirements.

UK's Heller said that besides state funding, the task force should consider the city of Lexington. "The city is extremely interested in the equine industry," which is one of Mayor Jim Newberry's focus areas, he said. "The city also has bonding authority, and I think they would step up for this, although I haven't asked them about this."

The panel is waiting on a Jockey Club report, expected soon, on a potential business model for a top-quality testing lab, which could handle much of the 400,000 racing samples that are tested annually now.