Kentucky Derby Horse Racing

Kentucky Derby entry Tiz the Law is lead off the track following a workout at Churchill Downs, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, in Louisville, Ky.

(The Center Square) - After hours of floor debate on floor Thursday night, the Kentucky House of Representatives voted to pass a bill allowing race tracks to offer wagering on historical horse racing, a slot-like game officials say is critical to the future of live racing in the state. 

Tracks have had the machines dating back for nearly a decade, but a state Supreme Court ruling last fall declared that the machines did not meet the definition of pari-mutuel wagering. That prompted lawmakers to file a bill to add historical racing to state statutes. 

State Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, said the court called on lawmakers to change the law. Without the change, not only did some racetracks face closure, but jobs at farms and other racing-related businesses would be at risk. 

“If you go outside of the country and you tell someone you're from Kentucky, usually the first thing that comes out of their mouth is Kentucky Derby,” Koenig said. “It's what we're known for. We export these horses from Kentucky, all over the world. We have people who come from all over the country and all over the world to work in our industry.” 

The vote was 55-38, but only 38 of the 75 Republicans voted in favor of the bill. 

Most Republicans who voted against claimed a religious and moral argument against gambling. 

“We have an industry that is a multi, multi-million, hundreds of millions dollar industry that doesn't care who they hurt,” said state Rep. David Hale, R-Wellington. 

Representatives whose districts include Kentucky Downs, the Franklin track where HHR debuted in 2011, and Oak Grove Racing and Gaming, a $150 million investment by Churchill Downs and Keeneland that opened last fall, were among those who voted against the bill. 

The issue did bring together Republican leaders in the legislature and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in a rare sign of solidarity during what’s been a contentious session. 

“This is what can happen when we stop fighting and work together,” he said in a statement. 

Some Democrats, though, had issues with the bill, too. Four Louisville Democrats who signed an op-ed piece calling for an increase in the 1.5% tax on the HHR handle, or total amount bet. 

In a statement after the vote, representatives from the state’s tracks thanked the lawmakers for protecting the future of what they called Kentucky’s “signature industry.” They also reaffirmed their commitment to work with state leader on developing “a fair and equitable graduated tax structure” tied to the revenues the machines generate. 

“We look forward to those discussions in the near term and confirm our commitment to the Commonwealth to build on our tax and job base through sound capital investments and good corporate citizenship," the statement read. 

Even after Beshear signs the bill into law, HHR will almost assuredly face yet another legal challenge. Martin Cothran, a spokesman for the Family Foundation of Kentucky said in a statement that it believes the machines will ultimately be the demise of the sport as it brings in more revenue. 

“Logic and common sense won the legal fight in Court, but money and political power won the political fight in the General Assembly,” he said.