House passes bill to save historical horse racing, goes to Beshear for signature

The Kentucky House of Representatives Thursday passed a bill that attempts to save slot-like machines at Kentucky racetracks, which the Kentucky Supreme Court recently ruled were illegal.

Senate Bill 120 creates a legal definition for parimutuel wagering — which is one of the few forms of gambling allowed in Kentucky’s constitution — to include historical horse racing machines, a slot-like game that bases winnings on the results of previously run horse races.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling, top legislative leaders launched a push to pass a bill that would legalize the machines, setting up a political battle of will between the socially conservative Republicans in the General Assembly who oppose gambling and the Chamber of Commerce Republicans spurred on by the powerful horse racing industry.

With at least one gambling facility forced to close because of the ruling — Red Mile in Lexington — the supporters of the bill painted it as a necessary bill to save jobs and help maintain an flow of money that has propped up Kentucky’s horse racing industry in recent years.

“This bill today is about jobs,” said Rep. Matthew Koch, R-Paris. “I cannot imagine a more dangerous time to cripple this industry. I cannot imagine sitting here today and voting to put more families on unemployment.”

For years, social conservatives have been able to effectively block bills that would expand gambling in Kentucky. With a new make-up in the House of Representatives and on an issue presented as preserving the status quo rather than expanding gambling options — and support from some Democrats — the bill had enough votes to pass.

Still, those members fought on, mirroring the effort from the conservative activists at the Family Foundation, which defeated the horse racing industry in court.

Rep. David Hale, R-Wellington, who is still recovering from lingering effects of COVID-19, said he had to have someone drive him to Frankfort so he could speak against the bill. In a passionate floor speech, he described the bill as the horse racing industry “begging and pleading” for a bailout from the legislature.

“I don’t think it is about their jobs, I think it is about greed,” Hale said. “I think it’s about greed for a greedy industry and a greedy corporation.”

Many members of the General Assembly have pushed for increasing the taxes on the games, seeing as they have generated about $700 million for the tracks since 2011 and more than $60 million for the state’s General Fund, according to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. But an effort to do so failed Thursday.

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