Sunday, June 11, 2000

Thoroughbred owners play campaign hosts

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEXINGTON — Some of Central Kentucky's majestic, famed thoroughbred farms are turning their attention to a different kind of horse race. Politics.

        Political hopefuls, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush, are turning to high-end horse farms in and around Lexington and the Bluegrass region to raise money. And the horse breeders make eager hosts, anxious to increase their voice and visibility in Washington.

        “In the past, the horse people haven't done a whole lot as an industry to make ourselves heard. Holding these events is a way to do that and help people ... we support and like,” said John T.L. Jones, owner of Walmac International, a thorough bred farm on Paris Pike in the heart of Lexington's horse country.

        Last month Republican U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher of the Sixth Congressional District, which includes Lexington, had a fund-raiser at Mr. Jones' Walmac Farm that raised $70,000. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was the featured speak er. On Friday,Mr. Bush will hold a campaign fund-raiser at Lane's End farm near Versailles in Woodford County, west of Lexington.

        Mr. Bush and his father, former President George Bush, are long-time friends of Lane's End owner Will Farish, a member of the board of director's at Churchill Downs in Louisville. George W. Bush was a guest of Mr. Farish at last month's Kentucky Derby.

        Former President Bush was guest speaker at a similar farm fund-raiser for Southgate Republican Jim Bunning's successful U.S. Senate campaign. Mr. Bunning, a racing fan whose daughter owns and races horses, raised more than $250,000 at event at the Vinery farm, near Midway in Woodford County.

        U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, from Louisville, also has raised campaign funds at thoroughbred farms. He said the farms are popular with politicians and contributors because the horse industry is such a huge part of Kentucky's economy, culture and tradition.

        “It's something we are quite proud of. And it's really a perfect way to hold these events ... coming to a horse farm is generally something people tend to really enjoy.”

        Most of the farms attract crowds of well-heeled donors. Donamire Farm in Lexington and 3 Chimneys in Midway, for exam ple, have provided scenic backdrops for fund-raisers.

        Many farms feature long, tree-lined drives, well-manicured fields, and spic-and-span horse barns that include such luxuries as air conditioning.

        Potential donors dress for cocktails, and the parties are mostly held outside on the mansion grounds or in extensive gardens. The candidates and special guests may get to pose for pictures with a prizewinning horse.

        “Our horse farms are really among the greatest jewels of the Commonwealth,” said Damon Thayer, of Scott County, the vice chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party and marketing director for the Breeders' Cup.

        “People like to see them. Many are open to the public for tours, and they are popular tourist destinations. So, if you can offer a contributor a candidate they support and have an event at one of these farms, then it's just another bonus.”

        That bonus comes with a cause.

        “There are things going on in Washington that affect us,” he said,

        Thoroughbred horse racing and breeding are responsible directly and indirectly for about 80,000 jobs in Kentucky, with a total economic impact of $3.4 billion, according to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.

        “Everybody thinks the horse industry is nothing but a bunch of big money guys,” Mr. Jones said. “But this is an industry that employs a lot of people and is responsible for a lot of money coming into this state.”

        Mr. McConnell and Mr. Bunning have helped the horse industry to gain tax credits.

        Recently they worked to exempt horse racing from a proposal to ban Internet gambling. Without the exemption, the simulcasting of horse races to tracks and venues across the country could have been harmed, said Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council in Washington.

        All six U.S. House members from Kentucky, including 4th District Democrat Ken Lucas of Boone County, have supported the exemption, Mr. Hickey said.

        The horse industry has only recently begun aggressively lobbying in Congress, spending about $80,000 in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks all types of political spending.

        But that still trails the casino industry's American Gaming Association, which spent about 10 times that amount that year.

        There is also another reason horse owners hold political events mostly for Republican candidates.

        “Horse people are almost all Republicans,” Mr. Jones said with a laugh. “We're mostly conservative businessmen who identify more with the Republicans than the other guys.”


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