After a decade of pushing for it in Frankfort, Kentucky's major horse industry advocacy group no longer supports casino gambling. That doesn't necessarily mean the issue is dead, but it is unlikely to come in the legislative session that begins in January.
The Kentucky Equine Education Project announced Friday that on Tuesday the board voted unanimously on a resolution stating that for the 2015 session it will not support casino legislation.
"For the last several years, supporters of Kentucky's signature horse industry have worked to expand gaming at racetracks in our Commonwealth in order to level the playing field with its competitors throughout the country," the organization said in its statement. "KEEP will remain active in any ongoing dialogue concerning these issues."
Founded in 2004 by former Gov. Brereton Jones to push for expanded gambling at racetracks as a way to boost purses for the flagging horse industry, KEEP represents racetracks, trainers, horse breeders and owners, and non-racing equine breeds. But Keeneland and Churchill Downs are no longer part of the group.
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Keeneland has since indicated the Lexington track will invest millions in "instant" or historical racing, a slots-like game that determines winners based on previously run races.
The Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that opposes expanded gambling, challenged the legality of those games, arguing they aren't truly pari-mutuel. But in February, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a split ruling — the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission can regulate the games but the court also sent the case back to Franklin Circuit Court for discovery on the pari-mutuel question. Keeneland and several other tracks have expressed confidence that the case will eventually be decided in their favor. No retrial date has yet been set.
On Friday, KEEP's board also said it is betting on historical racing. "Earlier this year, the Kentucky Supreme Court confirmed the legality of pari-mutuel wagering on historical horse racing, which KEEP believes will have a significant economic impact," the statement said. "Therefore, there needs to be more time for all parties to measure and evaluate the effect that this new pari-mutuel wagering product will have on our horse industry."
Only Kentucky Downs in Franklin and Ellis Park in Henderson have installed instant racing terminals, but Keeneland and The Red Mile in Lexington plan to open a joint facility next year, and Keeneland hopes to build a new track in Corbin with an instant racing parlor.
Through October, more than $300 million has been wagered on historical wagering at the two tracks, generating more than $4.6 million tax revenue, and more than $2.8 million in purses and incentives, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
But Churchill Downs on Friday responded to KEEP's action saying the Louisville-based casino and racetrack company still plans to pursue casinos because instant racing isn't a robust enough competitor. The games play slower and are less lucrative than traditional slot machines.
"Churchill Downs believes the growth of horse industry revenues through legislation to permit casinos and other gambling is needed for Kentucky tracks and the entire horse industry to successfully counter ever-growing competition from nearby racing markets that benefit from purses supplemented by casino revenues," Kevin Flanery, Churchill Downs racetrack president, said. "The historical racing model in Kentucky has demonstrated it does not compete well in markets with existing casinos, nor does it create meaningful revenue for the state. Any effort to limit gaming to this product is short-sighted for the industry and the state."