Historic racing operation in Kentucky closes temporarily; looks for Legislature fix

Published 6:47 am Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A betting operation featuring historical racing terminals has closed temporarily after Kentucky’s Supreme Court declined to reconsider its ruling that at least some of the games aren’t legal.

Keeneland and Red Mile called it a difficult decision to temporarily shut down the Lexington operation, but said it was done “until there is more clarity surrounding the situation.”

The state’s horse racing industry is looking to state lawmakers to resolve the issue in their favor, by passing legislation to put such betting operations on solid legal ground. Historical racing features slots-style machines allowing people to bet on randomly generated, past horse races. The games typically show video of condensed horse races. It’s become a lucrative venture for tracks.

“We have confidence the Kentucky legislature will continue its efforts to protect jobs and state revenue generated by historical horse racing, as well as protect Kentucky’s signature horse racing industry,” Keeneland and Red Mile said in a statement Sunday.

The legislature resumes its 2021 session next week, and the historical racing issue could become a contentious one for Republicans who dominate the House and Senate.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a key ally of the racing industry, said Monday that the issue has “landed squarely in our laps.” The Republican senator didn’t offer specifics about a legislative response, saying: “Everything will become apparent once the legislature reconvenes.”

“I think legislators need to understand what’s at stake here — the future of Kentucky’s signature industry,” Thayer said.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday urged lawmakers to make a “simple statutory fix” that he said is needed to guarantee the future operation of historical racing venues.

“We ought to get this fixed,” he told reporters. “And I hope we can work in a bipartisan manner and I think we can to get it fixed.”

Beshear previously warned that the consequences of the state Supreme Court ruling could be “devastating” for the horse racing industry, for people whose jobs rely on the venture and for the state’s budget, which receives millions of dollars in revenue from the activity.

Last year, in a huge setback for the racing industry, the Supreme Court ruled that at least some forms of historical race wagering do not meet the standard for pari-mutuel wagering. Racing interests asked the high court to reconsider. The court said last week it would not rehear the case.

The ruling stems from a long-running dispute between racing interests and The Family Foundation, a conservative group that opposes expanded gambling. The foundation has long argued that historical horse racing machines do not meet pari-mutuel wagering standards under Kentucky law. Attorneys for racing interests have insisted that historical horse racing is a valid form of wagering.

After the state’s high court declined to rehear the case, The Family Foundation said last week that the betting operations should stop.

“The state’s horse racing tracks have been legally running from the law and the state Constitution for 10 years while the regulatory agency overseeing them has looked the other way,” it said. “Now they’ve run out of options.”

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said last week that it would act in accordance with any judgment entered by the Franklin County Circuit Court. As of last week, the lower court had not entered any judgment since the state Supreme Court sent the case back to it, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

At Ellis Park, a thoroughbred race track at Henderson, track general manager Jeffery Inman said Monday that “for the time being, our HHR (historical horse racing) operations will remain open while we await further information.”

“We are hopeful that the Kentucky Legislature will act to protect our industry and the jobs and support they offer to the local community,” Inman said in a statement.

Historical horse racing has pumped money into race purses and breed development funds to put Kentucky tracks on more solid ground in competing with tracks and horse breeding operations in other states.

Keeneland and Red Mile said a reopening date has not been set for the Lexington betting operation.