11/05/2003 12:00AM

Racing industry braces for new Kentucky governor

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The election of Ernie Fletcher as governor of Kentucky almost surely will spur change within the state's racing industry, although racetrack and horsemen's executives said Wednesday that it is too early to predict how the industry will fare under the new administration.

At least two major racing issues face Fletcher, who on Tuesday was elected Kentucky's first Republican governor in 32 years when he defeated Democratic candidate Ben Chandler by 10 percentage points.

Easily the biggest issue is alternative gaming at state racetracks, which a consortium of racing interests has been pushing in recent years. The other major issue is the makeup of the state racing commission, which faces a major turnover in personnel in the coming months.

Fletcher, a two-term U.S. Representative, repeatedly said during the gubernatorial campaign that while he did not personally support slots at racetracks, he would "not stand in the way" if the Kentucky state legislature ultimately wants to approve a constitutional amendment favoring slots.

"The governor-elect has been clear on his stance, but the bottom line is, it's up to the legislature," said David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. "Our industry has given its input. Now is the time for them to decide whether or not they want a new revenue stream."

Fletcher will be inaugurated on Dec. 9. The Kentucky General Assembly convenes in January in Frankfort, and it is there that the racing industry will again be lobbying legislative members on the slots issue.

Alex Waldrop, senior vice president for public affairs at Churchill Downs, said "it's way too early to tell" how Fletcher will impact racing issues, but added that he is "looking forward to establishing a good dialog with the governor-elect on the issues that are vital to this industry."

The Kentucky Racing Commission, a regulatory body of 11 political appointees, long has been replete with men and women with close ties to Democratic administrations. As a prime example, the current commission chairman, Frank Shoop, was a major fund-raiser for the outgoing governor, Paul Patton.

Bernie Hettel, whose tenure as executive director of the commission spans five administrations, said all 11 commissioners are currently working under expired terms, except vice chairman Frank Jones Jr., whose term expires in March. Although Patton conceivably could reappoint some current members before leaving office, the more realistic scenario is that "obviously there will be some turnover," said Hettel.

The most important issue facing the commission is that of race-day medication. Shoop, who has expended great effort in bringing medication issues to the forefront, recently advocated a dramatic reduction in the number of allowable drugs for race-day usage, but it appears unlikely that he will be able to overcome opposition from horsemen and veterinarians to effect any major change before his tenure expires.

Although Chandler's stance in regard to slots was more proactive than Fletcher's, and although powerful Republicans David Williams and Don Ball have consistently voiced opposition to slots, leaders in the state's racing industry supported both candidates in the run-up to the election. "Racing was not monolithic on this one," said Waldrop.

Switzer said Fletcher's strong record during his brief tenure in Washington as a racing proponent is sufficient reason for optimism at this early juncture. "He's been a big supporter of ours," said Switzer. "If nothing else, he's certainly aware of the importance of our industry. That's a good place to start."

* Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal on Tuesday to allow slot machines at racetracks, by a 4-to-1 margin. Four separate ballot initiatives to allow expanded gambling at tracks have been defeated in Colorado since 1990.

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty