Day At The Track

A Coup D’Etat of Kentucky Horsemen

02:00 AM 31 Jul 2020 NZST
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Capitol building in Frankfort, Ky.
Capitol building in Frankfort, Ky.

Horse owners and trainers should very much beware when a racetrack advocates on behalf of a new horsemen's organization. That is what is happening in Kentucky as Churchill Downs Inc. in Louisville and The Red Mile in Lexington have endorsed a fledgling group to rival the 47-year-old Kentucky Harness Horsemen's Association to represent horsemen at the new casino/harness track in Oak Grove near the Tennessee border, an hour's drive northwest of Nashville.

In fact, “endorsed” may not be a strong enough term. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to say Churchill Downs Inc. and The Red Mile have masterminded a quiet coup d'etat of an existing harness horsemen's organization and that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission obsequiously rubber-stamped, giving legitimacy to a nebulous entity called the Kentucky Harness Association.

Approval of this dubious move is on the agenda of the Kentucky General Assembly's Legislative Research Commission at the state capitol in Frankfort on Thursday. There's no reason to believe the commission will do anything but accept the changes recommended by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

There is so much wrong with this, not the least of which is that Churchill Downs Inc. appeared to work in collaboration with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on language for the regulation that helps create this new organization while neutralizing the longstanding harness horsemen's representative.

Last Nov. 22, Mike Ziegler, executive director of racing for Churchill Downs Inc., sent an email to Marc Guilfoil, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, stating: “Per a conversation between John and Secretary Russell, attached are the proposed regulation changes in a word document for the track extension regulation and the Standardbred horsemen group.”

The email was acquired from the commission via public records requests.

Interestingly, Nov. 22 is also the date of a  letter Ziegler sent to Guilfoil saying that “it has been brought to our attention that the Kentucky Harness Association has requested approval from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to serve as an association representing Standardbred horsemen in the Commonwealth. Churchill Downs Incorporated is fully supportive of this request.”

It's amazing how Ziegler and Churchill Downs Inc. simultaneously went from having something “brought to our attention” to actually proposing language for the regulation to make it happen – all on the same day.

In that Nov. 22 email from Ziegler to Guilfoil, “John” would be John McCarthy, a powerful lobbyist in Frankfort representing Churchill Downs Inc. “Secretary Russell” would be Gail Russell, then secretary of the Public Protection Cabinet for lame duck Gov. Matt Bevin, who lost his bid for reelection on Nov. 5, 2019.

While the wheels were set in motion during Bevin's tenure as governor, his successor, Andy Beshear, will share in the blame if these changes are approved by the general assembly.

By their own admission, this new Kentucky Harness Association had a grand total of three members when the issue came before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for recognition. Let me repeat that: three total members.

The person said to be the organizer of the Kentucky Harness Association, Bob Brady, is brother-in-law of Ken Jackson, a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Jackson voted in favor of recognizing the organization started by his brother-in-law that could be charged with negotiating contracts on behalf of hundreds or thousands of horse owners and trainers.

Brady and Jackson are partners in a Lexington-based Standardbred auction company co-owned with the entity that owns The Red Mile harness track. The latter endorsed Brady's new organization, an association it might negotiate contracts with. This is about as incestuous as you can get.

It should also be noted that Jackson, in his role with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, made the motion in 2018 to award the Oak Grove casino and harness license to Churchill Downs Inc., which partnered with the Keeneland Association on the proposed project. There were other viable bidders.

Why should anyone in the Thoroughbred industry care about what organization represents harness owners and trainers at a small Kentucky casino/racetrack?

If you are a Thoroughbred owner or trainer, don't think this can't happen to you. I've seen this movie play out in Florida, where loopholes in state law are exploited to create bogus race meetings that operate with the approval of sham horsemen's organizations. The organizers do this to retain profits from casinos, card rooms or simulcasting and they don't have to share as much of that revenue with the sham horsemen's organizations as they would with a legitimate group. Can this happen in Kentucky? I wouldn't bet against it.

Churchill Downs pulled a bait and switch scheme at Calder Race Course in Florida, getting horse owners and trainers to support a slots machine referendum and then, after public approval, tearing down the grandstand and eventually connecting the casino license – one the horsemen helped secure – with a jai-alai permit.

I can't blame Churchill Downs Inc. for trying to overthrow a legitimate harness horsemen's organization and replacing it with hand-picked toadies. Company executives are only trying to maximum revenue to shareholders and increase the potential for their own bonuses. They are not looking out for the best interests of everyone in the horse industry.

That's my view from the eighth pole.


Reprinted with permission of The Paulick Report

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