What does horse racing fear almost as much as fatal breakdowns and crooked betting? Federal regulation.
The industry has been working for more than a year on a plan to permanently stave off that threat with an interstate compact.
Now, Kentucky has a chance to become one of the first states to join. So far, only Colorado has signed up, but the landmark legislation is expected to be introduced in Delaware, Indiana, New Jersey, New York and Virginia this year. Six states must sign on for the compact to take effect.
State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, pre-filed a bill in December that would let Kentucky regulators join. Thayer said he hopes to bring the bill before the Kentucky General Assembly in February.
"The thought of the federal government and federal bureaucrats running horse racing is not an approach that I support," Thayer said in announcing his bill last month.
He said signing onto the compact, similar to the existing national racing license compact, will let Kentucky continue to take the lead on major reforms.
"I think it's very much needed," Thayer said. "Owners who race in multiple states have been clamoring for more uniform standards for years. It would send a strong signal if Kentucky's the first major racing state to pass it."
The bill has the support of Lisa Underwood, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Underwood is on a steering committee, along with representatives of Keeneland, the New York Racing and Wagering Board, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, The Jockey Club, Racing Commissioners International, the U.S. Trotting Association and the Council of State Governments, that has been developing the compact idea since September 2009.
"(The compact) is a good opportunity to build broad-based consensus," Underwood said.
States still will approve each rule and can opt out of a rule they don't agree with. But, overall, a compact should result in a smoother regulatory landscape.
"It has been difficult for the horsemen to go state to state and have different rules," she said. "I would hope at some point to have a national rule book."
The movement has drawn widespread support from across the Thoroughbred racing industry as a way to finally bring a measure of uniformity to the sport.
Ed Martin, executive director of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said the idea is that states will retain ultimate authority over the sport but will function collectively and rule changes can be implemented at the same time, rather than piecemeal.
Martin pointed to the move to ban anabolic steroids after it came to light that 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown ran legally on steroids.
That, as well as the on-track death of runner-up Eight Belles, prompted calls for reform. Kentucky U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, pondered federal intervention; industry leaders were called before Congress to answer questions about the state of the sport.
In response, many states (including Kentucky), racetracks and organizations such as the Breeders' Cup moved to ban steroids.
But because each state, track and group had to act independently, the regulations took effect at different times, Martin said.
With a compact, states could all adopt the same change at the same time, he said.
"The concept of uniform implementation is very attractive," Martin said. "We feel it is a vast improvement over the status quo."
And a compact has some advantages over federal control, he said.
"Those who call for federal regulation miss the point that it would be an additional layer of regulation on top of existing regulation, which would have to be paid for," Martin said. "The industry would end up paying for it at the state level and at the federal level. That would be an enormous tax on the industry."
Churchill Downs, which owns racetracks in Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois and Florida, also will be watching the progress of the compact bill.
"Churchill Downs believes uniform national rules on medication and licensing would benefit all participants in America's horse industry, so we support the concept," said John Asher, Churchill Downs spokesman. "We'll be following the development of specifics in this measure as it evolves during the ongoing short session of the Kentucky General Assembly."
Even a compact has to be paid for somehow, and a variety of funding mechanisms have been proposed, including fees on stakeholders. Eventually, supporters say, the compact will save states money because it will be more efficient.
But not everyone is sure about the idea. Some horsemen have expressed concern that the compact could usurp individual input into new rules.
The National Horsemen's Benevolence & Protective Association, which represents horsemen, in July gave conditional support to the compact.
HBPA Joe Santanna said at the time that such a compact could benefit the industry as it seeks to standardize rules across jurisdictions: "The National HBPA will support and participate in the development of such an interstate compact as long as we have a comfort level that all participants in our industry — including horsemen — will be allowed fair and reasonable input into all decisions.".
Underwood has met with Kentucky HBPA officials to discuss their concerns and solicit support for the bill.
Marty Maline, Kentucky HBPA executive director, said he's studying the measure.
"At first blush, it kind of sounds like just another level of bureaucracy," Maline said. "I'm just not sure that everybody's on board with this."