By T. D. Thornton
The Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled Jan. 21 that it will not rehear an appealed Sept. 24 decision that told a lower court to re-examine the legality of historical horse race (HHR) gaming in the commonwealth, keeping the most crucial form of funding for purses at the state's five Thoroughbred tracks in peril.
HHR handled $2.2 billion during the Commonwealth's most recent fiscal year, and revenue from that form of gaming annually contributes tens of millions of dollars to the Kentucky purses. This form of gaming has been operational–but challenged by opponents in the courts as illegal–for the better part of a decade on the grounds that HHR does not meet the definition of pari-mutuel wagering.
Although Thursday's Supreme Court decision was not entirely unexpected, it eliminates an avenue for keeping HHR functional in Kentucky, making it clearer that getting HHR passed via new legislation remains the Thoroughbred industry's best path forward, according to some stakeholders.
Tonya Abeln, the vice president of communications for the gaming corporation Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), told the Louisville Courier-Journal that, “The Kentucky Supreme Court clearly told the industry to work with the General Assembly on achieving a legislative solution. Our top priority for the 2021 legislative session is maintaining the status quo to ensure historical horse racing can continue operating in Kentucky as it has for the past decade.”
CDI, which owns the tracks and gaming licenses associated with Kentucky's Churchill Downs and Turfway Park, has already halted reconstruction on its demolished Turfway grandstand, vowing late in 2020 not to continue until HHR's legality gets sorted out.
Officials at Keeneland Race Course told WTVQ in a statement that, “We are aware of the decision and are evaluating our options moving forward.”
Although the Supreme Court case only involves HHR machines of a particular brand, the gaming systems operate in broadly the same manner throughout Kentucky, meaning that a precedent established for one version is likely to affect all forms of HHR gaming.
But the near-term fate of HHR remaining operational was still murky as of Thursday evening.
“The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission [KHRC] will act in accordance with the terms of the judgement entered by the Franklin Circuit Court, pursuant to the September 24, 2020, opinion of the Kentucky Supreme Court,” stated a Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet statement posted to Twitter. “The KHRC will not provide additional comment at this time, due to ongoing litigation.”