- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 10, 2021

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Legislation meant to preserve wagering on historical racing machines in Kentucky stayed on a fast track Wednesday, clearing a House committee one day after it passed the Senate.

The measure has one remaining hurdle to clear in the full House, where opponents plan to make a stand against extending a lifeline to historical racing operations. Those ventures flourished for the state’s renowned horse racing industry, but a court ruling last year put the operations in jeopardy.

The bill seeks to fix flaws that led Kentucky’s Supreme Court to rule at least some forms of wagering on historical horse racing don’t meet pari-mutuel wagering standards under state law. The measure would insert such operations into the definition of pari-mutuel wagering.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday he’s ready to sign the measure if it reaches his desk, saying historical racing has “kept an industry that Kentucky is known for healthy.”

The proposal sailed through the House Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee on Wednesday, one day after it passed the Senate on a 22-15 vote. Senate Republicans who overwhelmingly control the chamber were divided on the measure, but supporters forged a coalition with GOP members and Democrats to push it through.



Supporters say the measure would preserve a form of wagering already offered for a decade in the Bluegrass State, as well as the jobs created at historical horse racing operations.

“It’s the perfect fit,” said Republican Sen. John Schickel during the Senate debate Tuesday. “It’s nuanced to racetracks. It’s a game about horses, confined to racetracks and their satellite facilities. And most importantly, infusing needed purse money into our thoroughbred circuit.”

Critics denounce the bill as a bailout for deep-pocketed racing interests that forged ahead with historical wagering operations despite knowing the legal uncertainties. Opponents warn slots-style historical wagering drains money from poor people desperate to cash a big winning ticket.

“Think twice before you … legislate something that will hurt many people and have no restrictions on it,” Kent Ostrander with The Family Foundation told the House panel Wednesday.

The foundation has fought a long legal battle against historical horse wagering. The group maintains that a change to Kentucky’s constitution is needed to make the operations legal - an approach supporters of historical racing say is not needed.

One of the bill’s advocates, horse trainer Tom Drury, told the House committee there’s “fear and frustration” in the equine industry over the uncertainty of historical racing.

“This is an absolute no-brainer,” he said. “We need HHR (historical horse racing) to compete with the rest of the country and to keep our horses and our jobs in the state of Kentucky.”

Fallout from the Supreme Court ruling began recently when one of the state’s historical racing venues, operated jointly by Keeneland and Red Mile in Lexington, closed temporarily.

Historical racing machines allow people to bet on randomly generated, past horse races. The games typically show video of condensed horse races. It’s become a lucrative venture, with bettors in Kentucky wagering more than $2 billion on the machines in the past fiscal year. The state’s racing industry pumped millions of dollars into developing historical horse racing parlors.

Those revenues also help support Kentucky’s horse industry. The ventures funnel money into race purses and breed development funds to make Kentucky tracks more competitive with casino-backed tracks in other states. Revenue also flows to support the many businesses servicing the horse industry, the bill’s supporters said.

The emergence of historical racing made Ellis Park a viable business again, Henderson County Judge-Executive Brad Schneider told the House committee. The Henderson County track increased its race purses thanks to historical racing revenues, boosting its live racing product and competitiveness with out-of-state tracks, he said.

The track is an important tourist attraction and an enduring part of the county’s identity, Schneider said. But he warned all of that “will be gone” unless lawmakers preserve historical racing.

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The legislation is Senate Bill 120.

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