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May 6, 2008

Let my people vote …The elephant in the room rears its ugly head on the backside

A few days before the Kentucky Derby, former Gov. Brereton Jones stood on the backstretch at Churchill Downs, talking about trainer Larry Jones’ decision to run the filly Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby instead of the Kentucky Oaks. He applauded the decision, and not just because it meant that his filly, Proud Spell, would have one fewer formidable opponent in the Oaks.“Larry’s a great horseman,” Jones said. “He wants to give all his horses their best opportunity to reach their potential. We entered Proud Spell in the Derby, too, just in case, and I think she would be competitive there. But she’s not as big or strong as Eight Belles, so I think Larry is doing the right thing by both horses.”At this point he was approached by a journalist who didn’t want to talk about horses. So the first thing he said was, “I can’t believe we couldn’t even get the casino issue on the ballot in Kentucky … do you think it’s dead?”The former guv did everything but heave a huge sigh. Earlier this year, as the driving force behind KEEP (Kentucky Equine Education Project), he suffered a disappointing blow in his drive to let Kentuckians vote on casino gambling.He knew, better than anyone, that several Kentucky horsemen were taking their stables to rival states that had used revenue from casino gambling to beef up racetrack purses and enhance incentive programs for breeders, putting Kentucky’s tracks at a competitive disadvantage.Beyond that, Jones believed Kentucky needed new revenue streams to give our citizens the sort of education, healthcare and opportunity they deserve. The polls indicated that 80 percent of all Kentuckians felt so strongly about the issue, one way or another, that they wanted to vote on it. Jones believed they should have that right.He had high hopes at the beginning of the session, but he and the rest of us watched with growing dismay as it devolved into a theater of the absurd. The ugliness and divisiveness reached the point that the casino bill never even made it to the House floor. It was killed by equal measures of ego, incompetence, jealousy and greed.Jones was so disappointed that he promised himself to not discuss the issue again until after the Derby. “Let’s just concentrate on the horses,” he said. And that’s what he was doing when the casino debacle reared its ugly head on the backstretch at Churchill Downs.“It’s so sad,” Brereton told the journalist. “Can you imagine how much money Kentucky would make this week if we had a world-class casino at Churchill Downs with the best entertainers in the world performing? All the international high rollers are here. They don’t have anything to do at night except go to parties. With casinos, they’d be giving us millions that we could use to build schools.”He smiled and grabbed the visitor’s arm.“I swore I wasn’t going to talk about this,” he said, “and now here we are. It’s so sad. Can we change the subject? Let’s talk about the horses.”On a Friday that had turned rainy and gloomy by post time for the Oaks, Proud Spell came splashing down the stretch at Churchill to give Brereton Jones and his wife, Libby, the biggest win of their 36 years as Kentucky breeders. The casino heartaches were momentarily forgotten, replaced by the special euphoria that comes with winning a big horse race.Only 24 hours later, Larry Jones momentarily seemed a genius when Eight Belles, the filly he trains for owner Rick Porter, crossed the Derby finish line second to the amazing Big Brown. But a quarter of a mile past the finish, the unthinkable happened. As jockey Gabriel Saez pulled her up, Eight Belles took a bad step and broke both forelegs in a freak accident that left veterinarians no choice but to immediately administer lethal injection.The shock numbed the crowd and detracted from one of the most remarkable performances in the Derby’s 134-year history. Breaking from the No. 20 post position on the far outside, Big Brown ran like a seasoned veteran instead of a colt with only three career starts, all victories, to his credit.Superbly ridden by Kent Desormeaux, he easily got a position just behind the leaders, dropped from fourth to sixth while gathering himself on the backstretch, and then uncorked a run to glory that vindicated trainer Rick Dutrow Jr.’s outrageous confidence in him and convinced the skeptics that here, indeed, might be racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.He was, in a word, brilliant.The Derby Day crowd of 157,770, second largest in history, bet $26,181,260 on the Derby Day card. Nobody knows how much was bet at the casino on the Indiana side of the Louisville Metro, but it’s an indisputable fact that, unlike the racetrack revenue, none of that revenue will help Kentucky’s racing industry, educational system or healthcare industry.That’s simply unacceptable. It’s an embarrassment. So sooner or later, you can bet Brereton Jones will get back into the fight. And when he does, he can only hope Kentucky gets casino gambling before he sees a colt by Big Brown, out of Proud Spell, make it to the Kentucky Derby. Contact the writer via www.billyreedsay.com