02/05/2004 1:00AM

New Kentucky panel sworn in


LEXINGTON, Ky. - In a largely ceremonial setting, the newly formed Kentucky Horse Racing Authority convened for the first time Thursday amid promises that a new and more affluent era in the state's horse industry has been set in motion.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher, whose Republican administration abolished the Kentucky Racing Commission in favor of the authority, was foremost among the speakers who addressed a crowd of nearly 100 at the 90-minute meeting. Fletcher, the state's first Republican governor since 1971, said he was looking to "restore the commission and expand its mission" and said he was confident that the man he appointed as chairman, Bill Street, will "take the reins and really take us where he's going."

Perhaps the only news from the meeting was revealed by Street, who told the assemblage that the authority had hired a national search firm to assist in finding a new executive director and chief steward. Both of those positions had been filled for nearly 20 years by Bernie Hettel, who was forced to resign last month; the interim executive director is Jesse Skees, a state bureaucrat. Street, a retired corporate executive officer of major liquor distributor Brown-Forman Corp., and other officials said filling the positions is a "top priority" but did not specify whether one or two people would be hired.

Much of the meeting served as a basic primer on the various functions of the Authority and how its funds are amassed and spent. There were other perfunctory tasks undertaken, including the swearing in of all 16 members of the Authority and an ethics briefing.

One major difference from the former commission is that active promotion of the horse industry will be undertaken by the Authority. Jim Host, a television sports syndicator who is Fletcher's secretary of commerce, told the crowd that he is assuming personal responsibility for overseeing the development of programs that will promote the industry.

"This industry has never been promoted by state government," said Host. "Nothing is more important to this state than this industry."

After the formalities and speeches ended, several items of business were quickly approved, including a date change for previously approved Quarter Horse races that now will be run at the Lexington harness track, The Red Mile, on July 3 and 4.