01/09/2004 1:00AM

New name - and names - but

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The newly created Kentucky Horse Racing Authority is, in theory, almost identical to the Kentucky Racing Commission it replaces. So why would new Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who took office late last year, go through the trouble of striking down whole sections of state law in order to create the new panel, as he did on Tuesday?

To some Kentucky racing officials, the explanation is simple.

"He hadn't received the resignations he expected to receive," said David Switzer, the president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, which represents owners and breeders in the state. "And in order to get the people he wanted on the racing commission, he had to change the whole thing. Honestly, a new governor should have that authority."

It is not unusual for a governor to replace commissioners after taking office in order to reward political backers, but the wholesale abolishment of a commission is not in any way commonplace. But Kentucky was facing some special circumstances: The previous commission had come under fire for mishandling several financial issues, and the former administration of Gov. Paul Patton had left office with several scandals under its belt. Replacing the commission was a way of wiping the slate clean.

"I think that's a good way of putting it," said Damon Thayer, a first-term Kentucky state senator who was formerly a top racing official. "The new authority has the exact same regulatory powers as the old commission, but the governor has asked it to expand its scope to take into account economic factors, from tourism to the tax code to making recommendations about how to make the industry grow."

The new authority will inherit a bitter disagreement about whether Kentucky should reform its medication rules. The state has the most liberal medication policies in the country, and many owners and breeders lobbied the previous commission to make the rules more strict, in accordance with a national movement to unify state medication rules. The powerful Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, however, opposes the changes.

Authority members said this week that it is too early to tell what, if anything, the authority will do on medication.

"I think our role is going to evolve over time," said Don Ball, the owner of Donamire Farms and a member of the new authority.

Whatever its role, the authority is not expected to meet until the Legislature, which just began its 2004 session, approves Fletcher's Tuesday action, although there is some disagreement as to whether that is even necessary. In the meantime, appointees to the authority said this week that they have been attempting to call other members, to introduce themselves and get a reading on where the members stand on certain issues.

Those stands are varied. Dell Hancock, who is associated with Claiborne Farms, said on Thursday that she accepted a membership on the authority in order to influence medication policy in Kentucky. Hancock, along with her brothers, Seth and Arthur, have long advocated a far more restrictive medication policy in Kentucky, complaining that the liberal use of drugs in the state is having harmful long-term impacts on the breed.

"To be honest, that's one of the reasons I wanted to be on it," Hancock said from Florida. "I do put the horses first, and I do have opinions, and I think if I didn't participate then I wouldn't be pulling my weight. I have an opportunity to do something about it now, and I feel like I should take that opportunity."

Other members, however, said they are not bringing any preconceived notions to the table. Kerry Cauthen, a consultant to Walmac International and the managing partner of a Thoroughbred consignment agency, said he has not yet formed an opinion on medication policy and will wait for the authority to hold hearings before coming to any conclusions.

"I don't know all the answers, but I feel like I can listen to educated people and opinions and make sound decisions," Cauthen said. "I think that is what I am there for."