10/02/2002 11:00PM

Attorney Sturgill is dead

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Don Sturgill, a pioneering lawyer for horsemen's rights and a longtime legal counsel to the National and Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, died Wednesday of a heart attack in his home in Lexington, Ky. He was 74.

Sturgill represented horsemen in a number of landmark cases establishing horsemen's simulcasting rights, and he also represented prominent Kentucky owners, breeders, and farms, including Brownell Combs, Allen Paulson, and Robert Clay.

Sturgill also laid most of the legal foundation for stallion syndication, a practice that now dominates the breeding industry.

"During at least the last half-century, he was, if not the most pre-eminent, one of the most pre-eminent equine advisors in the country," said Bill Walmsley, an Arkansas attorney and former horsemen's official who first met Sturgill in the early 1990's. "It's like a legend has passed away."

A native of Lexington, Sturgill received his bachelor's degree from Harvard University and his law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1955. He was a commissioner on the Kentucky Department of Public Safety from 1956-60, and then briefly joined the presidential campaign staff of then-Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Although his family had introduced him to racing as a young man, Sturgill's legal interest in racing blossomed over the next decade, and from the 1970's until his death, his personal practice focused nearly exclusively on the racing industry.

"He paved the way for what we now call the equine law field," said Doug McSwain, an attorney who worked with Sturgill for 14 years. "It didn't exist before Don Sturgill did it."

In 1989, Sturgill became legal counsel for the Kentucky HBPA. In 1992, he took an identical position with the National HBPA. As the legal counsel, he argued landmark cases that established horsemen's veto rights over the broadcast of simulcast signals.

"Before anyone else, he saw how important simulcasting was going to be," said Remi Bellocq, the executive director of the National HBPA.

Sturgill resigned from both the National and Kentucky HBPA's earlier this year, citing his workload at his Lexington law firm. Soon after his departure, a scandal erupted regarding possible conflicts of interest of several HBPA officers related to a consulting company incorporated in Illinois in 1999. Sturgill was a stockholder in the company.

Sturgill said in interviews that he had done nothing wrong. A task force set up by the national HBPA concluded several months ago that Sturgill and another officer had exhibited "poor judgment" regarding the company.

Marty Maline, the executive director of the Kentucky HBPA, said Sturgill often volunteered legal services to backstretch workers. "He was a tireless advocate of not only horsemen, but the racing industry in general," Maline said.