Sunday, February 8, 2004

New racing chairman finding legs

Bill Street has plenty to learn
about horse industry

By Murray Evans
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - Bill Street admits to being a novice when it comes to the horse business that Gov. Ernie Fletcher calls Kentucky's signature industry.

As someone who hasn't owned a horse since he was a child, Street offers two reasons he thinks Fletcher appointed him as chairman of the new Kentucky Horse Racing Authority: his success in private business and high ethical standards.

Street said the governor spent a lot of time talking about ethics when he asked the retired Brown-Forman Corp. president and Louisville resident to serve on the authority.

"It's very much on his mind," Street said.

On Jan. 6, Fletcher abolished the Kentucky Racing Commission and established the authority, which is charged with promoting economic development and tourism, in addition to its traditional role as a regulator of racing and breeding.

Street said there was a feeling that perhaps the former agency "wasn't making the best efforts" to enhance the growth of the horse industry.

"I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about the past," Street said. "There is no doubt, in listening to people whom I respect, the practices of the prior commission ... didn't help in promoting the industry."

Kentucky Horse Park executive director John Nicholson said that while the racing commission worked little with the Horse Park, he believes the new authority will consider the state park a partner and that Street can "bring a fresh perspective" to the industry.

Former racing commission executive director Bernie Hettel said promoting the industry wasn't a part of the commission's duties, which he said were mostly regulatory.

"The perception of integrity and this important new road that they're going down of promoting our signature industry - that's what separates the old commission from the new authority," Nicholson said.

Fletcher, at the authority's first meeting Thursday, cited "procedural irregularities" and "questions about the processes and payments for professional services," in requesting an audit that was approved by the new board.

A state auditor's report last year questioned the cost to run a panel of the Racing Commission known as the backside improvement commission. The report also found that the Racing Commission should limit the amount of people eligible for pins that gain them access to racetracks in the state.

Hettel said that no specific criticism has been directed toward him about ethics. He said he wishes members of the authority "nothing but the best" and called the formation of the authority "the next step in the maturation process of getting bigger, better and different."

Street, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, began working for Brown-Forman in 1963. He retired as the liquor company's president in October, but still serves on the company's board, as well as that of Papa John's International, the Louisville-based pizza maker.

Street said that while he has no background in the horse industry, he understands its importance to Kentucky.

"When you think about Kentucky, the horse industry is so much a part of its personality and how the rest of the world looks at the state," Street said "Anything we can do to promote and enhance that reputation will put the Commonwealth in a better light. When you're trying to build things, you've got to build from your strengths, and the horse industry is obviously one of the great strengths of the Commonwealth."

Street said the employees of the racing commission - who now work for the authority - will be retained, "so long as they're competent and do their job well." One of those employees is Bambi Todd, former Gov. Paul Patton's stepdaughter.

Street was less specific about other key issues facing the industry, such as the possibility of slot machines at racetracks and whether or not Kentucky's horse medication rules should be made more stringent, something the racing commission had planned to do.

He said he had an opinion about expanded gambling, "but I'm not sharing it at this point," and said he didn't know what the authority's approach would be about the medication issue.

Keeneland Race Course President Nick Nicholson said patience would be needed as Street and other authority members learn more about their new jobs and the nuances of key industry issues.

"I hadn't thought of them getting involved in legislative issues," he said. "It makes sense to give them time to get it off the ground."

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