10/20/2009 11:00PM

Racing figures rap politicians over slots in Kentucky

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Top racing officials in Kentucky accused the state's Republican leadership of playing politics by announcing on Tuesday afternoon that they would support measures to put referenda on the 2010 ballot that could pave the way to slot machines at racetracks.

The response to the proposals, which were announced by two Republicans, Senate President David Williams and State. Sen. Damon Thayer, illustrates the deep divide between the state's Republican and Democratic parties, both of which have been attempting to defend their positions on expanded gambling in Kentucky since a bill legalizing the machines failed during a special session this summer. Democrats, who control the house, have supported the legalization of the machines, while Republicans, who control the senate, have opposed most expanded-gambling measures.

Former Gov. Brereton Jones, the owner of Airdrie Stud and the co-founder of a deep-pocketed racing industry lobbying group, the Kentucky Equine Education Project, said on Wednesday that the proposals to put measures on the 2010 ballot were designed to make the Republican party appear sensitive to the issues confronting the racing industry even though racetracks and horsemen do not support either measure.

"These guys have no intention of saving the racing industry," Jones said. "This is all about politics, plain and simple."

Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who called the special session earlier this year, released a statement calling the measures "cynical."

Even though the racing industry has supported measures to put slot machines on the ballot in the past, Jones said that KEEP would not support the Republican efforts because the racing industry needs slot machines to pass as soon as possible. He also said that if the measure went to the ballot, the racing industry would need to raise $20 million to $30 million to combat lobbying campaigns sponsored by out-of-state casino operators, even though KEEP believes that 65 to 70 percent of Kentucky voters support slots.

"We've got the public support until you get $25 million of brainwashing paid for by those out-of-state campaigns," Jones said.

Bills introduced by Democrats in recent years to legalize slot machines or casinos have largely limited expanded gambling to racetracks. Horsemen and racetracks would likely share hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually if expanded gambling were legalized. The racing industry contends that the machines are necessary in order to compete with tracks in neighboring states that already generate revenues from casino-type gambling.

The slot-machine issue has also begun affecting political races in the state. After the vote in the special session failed, the Kentucky Equine Education Project began supporting efforts to unseat Republicans in the senate in the hopes that Democrats might take control of the chamber. The effort has coincided with several sharply worded editorials written by Bill Farish, whose family owns Lane's End Farm and is closely connected with the Bush family, claiming that state Republicans have abandoned the racing industry and that horsemen in Kentucky should support efforts to replace Republicans who do not support slots at tracks.

Donald Gross, the head of the political science department at the University of Kentucky, said that the Democratic party in Kentucky is hoping that their support of expanded gambling in the past will pay off with the defeat of Republican senators in next year's elections.

"The Democrats are certainly capitalizing on an opportunity, and the opportunity is being presented right now because they can say that the difficulties they saw on the horizon four years ago are now here," Gross said, in reference to the racing industry's economic problems. "They see this as an opportunity to gain the Senate, and they can build that on top of something that they have a history of supporting."

Campaigns for the 2010 election are already beginning in Kentucky, and on Wednesday, Terry Meyocks, a Lexington-based racing consultant who is a former New York Racing Association executive, said that he had filed papers to run for the 12th district senate seat currently held by Alice Forgy Kerr, a Republican who voted against the slots bill as a member of the Senate budget committee.

Meyocks, 58, said that he has been a "lifelong Democrat," citing his connection to Chicago, a heavily Democratic city, though he also said that he is a "conservative Democrat."

Kentucky law requires legislators to live in the state for six years before they can hold office. Meyocks moved to Lexington in 2004 shortly after resigning as chief operating officer of the New York Racing Association as part of a deal with prosecutors who were investigating fraud in the association's mutuels department. The election will be held in November 2010.

Meyocks said that he first began considering a run for office this summer after the senate budget committee rejected the slot-machine bill. He said that without slot machines, 100,000 Kentuckians would be in jeopardy of losing their jobs, citing a figure that many Kentucky racing officials use to describe direct and indirect employment provided by Thoroughbred horse activities in the state. The figure was contained in a 2005 economic-impact study paid for by the American Horse Council, an equine lobbying group.

"If we lose a significant portion of that, the economy of the state is going to suffer," Meyocks said. "And that's going to impact education, health care, and everything else."