Friday, February 6, 2004

New racing authority will start with audit

By Murray Evans
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority approved an audit of its finances during its first meeting Thursday, a move urged by Gov. Ernie Fletcher so the organization can "start with a clean slate."

The authority, established by Fletcher last month after he abolished the Kentucky Racing Commission, is charged with regulating racing in the state and promoting Kentucky's horse industry. The new authority assumed all the assets of the commission.

Meeting at the Kentucky Horse Park, the 16-member authority unanimously approved the proposed audit. Mark York, a spokesman for the state Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet - under which the authority falls - said no timetable has been set for the audit.

"In the course of our internal review (of) some of the activities of the former racing commission, we have found some procedural irregularities. We have some questions about the processes and payments for professional services," Fletcher said before requesting that the authority approve the audit.

Fletcher also encouraged authority members to work with the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville to promote equine research and to "showcase" what he called the state's "signature industry."

Fletcher appointed Bill Street, recently retired president of Brown-Forman Corp. in Louisville, as the authority's chairman. Street, who worked in the liquor industry for more than 40 years, acknowledged some ignorance of the horse industry but said he's spent a lot of time learning about it.

"There is no doubt the horse industry is the signature industry in Kentucky," Street told fellow authority members. "I can tell you as a maker of fine bourbon, I have to gulp a little bit when I have to admit that."

Street said the authority will have to deal with numerous issues, including declining attendance at racetracks, increased competition from other forms of gambling and debates about the state's horse medication rules.

"The sense of direction is extremely important," Street said. "I don't believe in a rudderless ship. One of the first tasks that we will have as a new authority will be to define our mission, what our task is. I think the governor has done a good job of getting us started on the task. It is obviously a broader mission than perhaps the old Kentucky Racing Commission undertook, and I'm pleased with that broader mission. There is a lot to be done.

"It is an industry that, frankly, has its share of issues."

Environmental and Public Protection Secretary LaJuana Wilcher said one of the authority's first priorities will be to hire a permanent executive director. Jesse Skees is serving as the authority's interim executive director. A national search firm will be used to search for a permanent director, Wilcher said.

Much of the authority's first meeting consisted of remarks from Fletcher, Street, Wilcher and two other members of Fletcher's cabinet, Commerce Secretary Jim Host and Economic Development Secretary Gene Strong.

Besides approval of the audit, the authority took action on three other items - approval of Future Wagers in 2004 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, approval of the sending and receiving of interstate simulcasting signals in 2004 at The Red Mile harness racing track in Lexington and changing the dates of scheduled quarterhorse races at The Red Mile. The dates for those races now will be July 3 and 4.

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