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June 17, 2009

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

It’s almost as if we’re leaving a huge chunk of Kentucky’s economy in a basket on Indiana’s doorstep.

There it lies — crying, hungry, tired and abandoned. The note attached reads: “Dear Kind State, Please take care of our equine industry. We love it very much and it breaks our hearts to do this, but we simply can’t preserve it anymore.”

That’s essentially what we’re doing if our legislators don’t pass expanded gaming during the special session that began Monday in Frankfort. Only in addition to Indiana, we’re also leaving baskets on the thresholds of West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, too.

Kentucky is poised to make the biggest mistake in its history.

If the expanded gaming initiative isn’t passed, at least two but most likely four racetracks will shut their doors next year, multitudes of trainers will relocate their stables out of state, and Kentucky’s signature industry will be gone. Forever.

This is indisputable. It’s already started and it will continue; that is, unless the people of the commonwealth wake up fast and Frankfort lawmakers grow spines — neither of which I readily anticipate, but I can hope.

In the last couple of years Kentucky has handed over multi-millions of dollars in economic incentives to state auto and manufacturing companies to save a few thousand jobs here, create a few hundred there.

Yet the public and political outcry over the potential loss of the equine industry has been minimal, despite the fact that both that industry and after-market service businesses are the state’s third largest source of revenue. The horse industry isn’t asking to be bailed out or bribed into staying; it simply wants our racetracks to have permission to expand their business so that they can compete with other tracks.

Kentucky’s predominance in racing has been steadily losing ground while Indiana, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all added gaming and became destination locations. Our lawmakers wasted 15 years arguing about video slot machines as competing states developed horse racing industries that they have filled with Kentucky-bred horses, successfully luring them away with gaming-funded breeding incentives and sweetened purses. It costs the same to raise a horse in Kentucky as it does in Pennsylvania, but Penn winners pay off significantly better. The business decision is simple.

The Morality Police are having a field day trotting out the old standby arguments. The spew is always the same: Expanded gaming will increase poverty, addiction, prostitution and crime, and it will break up families. The Antis even skew analyses to back up their claims, hoping to confuse the public with unrealistic alternatives and permanently stall the gaming initiative.

As if Kentucky didn’t already house the poor, addicts, prostitutes and criminals. It didn’t take gaming to get us here. Want to see families disintegrate? See what happens when tens of thousands of jobs disappear.

Trainers and owners will move their businesses to richer pastures. But what about those who’ll be left behind, like track workers, feed and tack vendors, food and beverage suppliers, restaurants and retail shops, farriers, veterinarians and their staffs, breeding farms and their employees? These people have families. They contribute to our economy. Many have lived here their entire lives and can’t or won’t follow the horses. Besides, out-of-state tracks already have infrastructures in place. They don’t need our people.

Moral ruination? Hardly. Look at Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs. You won’t see hookers stacked on top of each other as a result of slot machines. What you will see around gaming sites is new construction, more jobs and invigorated development. And don’t look now, but Louisville already has prostitutes.

As for the Antis’ assertion that new throngs of people will be gambling: When’s the last time you went to the zoo or Mammoth Cave? Just because a venue exists doesn’t mean people lose their free will and automatically patronize it.

The Antis are entitled to their agenda, but the truth is that expanded gaming has the economic impact and immediacy to quell the exodus of horsemen and stave off track closures.

We placate ourselves with slogans like “Possibility City” and “Unbridled Spirit.” Get ready to change that logo. Maybe we could substitute the tiny head of a nervous-looking greyhound and come up with economic incentives to attract the world’s largest chew toy factory. There’s a legacy. 

Tagged: Francene |