01/14/2004 1:00AM

Hettel resigns posts

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Bernie Hettel, easily the most prominent racing official in Kentucky the last two decades, abruptly retired from his dual positions of executive director and chief steward on Wednesday by submitting his resignation to state government officials who oversee the newly formed Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.

Hettel's resignation apparently was sparked by major overhauls in racing regulation that occurred soon after Ernie Fletcher took office in December as Kentucky's first Republican governor in 32 years. Fletcher recently abolished the Kentucky Racing Commission and fired all its board members when he established the new racing authority, whose membership is dominated by Republicans he appointed.

A racing official familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified said Hettel was asked to resign and that Hettel did not wish to speak with reporters Wednesday.

Hettel began his career as an entry-level clerk in racing offices at Kentucky tracks some 30 years ago before rising rapidly through the ranks to become chief director and commission executive director in the mid-1980's.

Hettel played a key role in numerous major stories and controversies involving the commission, including the sponging incidents of 1997 and the Jose Santos "Q-ring" fiasco last May.