Kentucky Senate Committee Advances HHR Legislation

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February 4, 2021 0 Comments



With several committee members noting the importance of protecting jobs in the state, the Kentucky Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee passed legislation that would protect historical horse racing by updating pari-mutuel rules.

Sponsored by Senator John Schickel, a Republican from Union who chairs the committee, and Senate President Robert Stivers (Manchester, Republican), Senate Bill 120 was passed Feb. 4 in Frankfort. It will head to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote. 

The legislation has bipartisan support. Minority Caucus Chair Reginald Thomas (Lexington, Democrat) is a member of the committee and voted Thursday to advance the bill. Gov. Andy Beshear (Democrat) has asked the Kentucky General Assembly for legislation protecting HHR. 

Click to read the full bill

Operations of HHR games were called into question in September when the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously ruled that at least one brand was not pari-mutuel. Supporters of the games, which determine winning combinations based on previously run horse races, have always said their payouts are pari-mutuel.

Thursday’s vote followed about an hour-long hearing where supporters like trainer Tom Drury noted the economic engine created by one of Kentucky’s signature industries. He discussed the many businesses he supports to keep his training operation going: needed purchases of straw, feed, equipment, veterinary services, and beyond. 

“I’ve got a person that hauls my horses to and from the races,” Drury said. “There’s a little country store just down the road where all of my employees will have lunch every day. So when you when you talk about horse racing in Kentucky, I think you should definitely keep in mind the trickle down effect that comes along with that.”

Drury later estimated that he writes about a dozen checks each month to various vendors.

Sen. Damon Thayer (Georgetown, Republican) noted that each of those vendors have families. He cited a University of Kentucky study that the industry directly or indirectly supports 100,000 state jobs. 

Sen. Paul Hornback (Shelbyville, Republican) said that he and Drury were both farmers. He wanted to emphasize that racing and breeding are agriculture.

“I want to impress upon this group that for those of us that are farmers out there, you talked about the hay, the straw, the grain, everything that goes into that,” Hornback said. “We appreciate what you all do and really realize how important that is.”

Also speaking on behalf of the bill were Kelli Pendleton, president/CEO of the Christian County Chamber of Commerce; and attorney Bill Lear, a Keeneland Association trustee.

Representatives of the Family Foundation suggested the legislation was unconstitutional and that money from the machines was largely supporting out-of-state owners of tracks, like publicly held Churchill Downs Inc. They suggested a constitutional amendment is needed to make the games legal.

But in supporting the bill, Sen. Schickel noted that in its September opinion the Kentucky Supreme Court specifically called on lawmakers to update the pari-mutuel definition to specifically include HHR. He correctly quoted the passage from that decision:

“We acknowledge the importance and significance of this industry to this commonwealth,” the Supreme Court opinion read. “We appreciate the numerable economic pressures that impact it … If a change, however, in the long-accepted definition of pari-mutuel wagering is to be made, that change must be made by the people of this commonwealth through their duly elected legislators, not by an appointed administrative body and not by the judiciary.”

The Kentucky Equine Education Project, which advocates for all horse breeds in Kentucky, applauded the committee’s advancing the bill.

“This is a critical step toward ensuring historical horse racing can continue in our state, just as it has for the last 10 years. Now, we urge our elected officials in the Senate to act swiftly in passing this bill and sending it to their colleagues in the House,” KEEP said in a statement. “SB 120 is solely about maintaining the status quo and preserving the jobs and economic development opportunities that historical horse racing has consistently provided our state. We are continuing to work alongside a broad coalition of organizations and constituents from all parts of the state who understand the importance of keeping HHR in Kentucky.”

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