FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The Kentucky Senate passed a bill Tuesday aimed at preserving wagering on historical racing machines that the state’s horse tracks installed to support racing operations.
The measure divided Republicans who overwhelmingly control the chamber, but supporters forged a coalition with GOP members and Democrats to push it through the Senate on a 22-15 vote.
The bill, a response to a court ruling, goes to the GOP-led House next.
Last year, Kentucky’s Supreme Court ruled that at least some forms of wagering on historical horse racing don’t meet pari-mutuel wagering standards under state law. The Senate-passed measure would insert such operations into the definition of pari-mutuel wagering.
Fallout from the court ruling began recently when one of the state’s historical racing venues, operated jointly by Keeneland and Red Mile in Lexington, closed temporarily.
The slots-style historical racing machines allow people to bet on randomly generated, past horse races. The games typically show video of condensed horse races. It’s become a lucrative venture, with bettors in Kentucky wagering more than $2 billion on the machines in the past fiscal year. The state’s racing industry pumped millions of dollars into developing historical horse racing parlors.
Those revenues help support Kentucky’s renowned horse industry. The ventures funnel money into race purses and breed development funds to make Kentucky tracks more competitive. Revenue also flows to support the many businesses servicing the horse industry, the bill’s supporters said.
Supporters said the measure would preserve a form of wagering already offered for a decade in Kentucky, as well as the jobs created at historical horse racing operations.
“It’s the perfect fit,” said Republican Sen. John Schickel, the bill’s lead sponsor. “It’s nuanced to racetracks. It’s a game about horses, confined to racetracks and their satellite facilities. And most importantly, infusing needed purse money into our thoroughbred circuit.”
Opponents said such wagering drains money from poor people looking to cash a big winning ticket.
“We’re talking about advancing a policy we know going in will harm many of our people,” said Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield. “We know that gambling addiction is real and brings financial hardships to individuals and families that have to battle with it.”
Westerfield labeled the bill a “bailout” for the horse racing industry. The industry knew from the outset the machines were legally questionable but pushed ahead to develop historical wagering operations, he said. The industry “bet it all and they lost” with the Supreme Court ruling, he said.
“And now they’re asking us to do what they never would consider doing for their bettors — make them whole,” Westerfield added.
Opponents are looking to make another stand against the bill. Opposition from many Senate Republicans “doesn’t bode well” for the bill’s prospects in the House, said The Family Foundation, a conservative group that has fought a long legal battle against historical horse wagering.
“The number of red-county, conservative Republicans who are proud constitutionalists could mean that SB 120 is in trouble in the House,” said Martin Cothran, a foundation spokesman.
The group says a change to Kentucky’s constitution is needed to make the operations legal — an approach that supporters of historical racing say isn’t needed.
Meanwhile, the bill’s advocates said the future viability of the state’s horse racing industry is at stake, along with the jobs and economic activity it generates.
“Now, we are calling on our elected officials in the House to bring SB 120 to passage so that historical horse racing can continue in the commonwealth, just as it has for the last decade,” said the Kentucky Equine Education Project, an equine economic advocacy group.
The legislation is Senate Bill 120.