Early in 1994, on a cold February afternoon in the Kentucky state capital of Frankfort, the éminence grise of the Bluegrass breeding establishment, James E. (Ted) Bassett III, arrived at a hearing room to settle this thing: this divisive, prickly matter of riverboats and racetracks. Bassett is the chairman of the Keeneland Association, through which he runs not only the world's swankiest thoroughbred auction house but also that pretty little racecourse off Versailles Road. And over the years no one has come to represent more loyally the Kentucky breeder's state of mind—where hopes and fears exercise together in a gymnasium of the status quo—than this courtly U.S. history graduate of Yale.
For weeks lobbyists representing a consortium of the state's eight other tracks, which Keeneland had declined to join, had been buttonholing state lawmakers, particularly members of the House Tourism Committee, pressuring them to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would allow casino gambling at racetracks in Kentucky. Three of the seven states that border Kentucky—Illinois, Indiana and Missouri—had already legalized riverboat casinos, and the mounting fear was that the Bluegrass State would soon be rimmed by floating slots and blackjack tables draining pari-mutuel dollars from the windows of its tracks. Only Illinois actually had any boats in the water, with four on the Mississippi, but Illinois and Indiana share the Ohio River with Kentucky, and several Indiana counties bordering the river were lining up for licenses to launch a boat.
And so, with the barbarians perceived to be at the gates—nay, about to scale the battlements—the racetrack consortium arose under its boosterism banner, KENTUCKY TO THE FRONT. Since the size of any track's purses is a direct reflection of the money it handles in bets (a certain amount, usually around 7.5%, is skimmed off the top for purses), and since casino competition invariably cuts into a track's handle, thereby reducing purses and thus the quality of the fields, the consortium proposed to augment the diminished pots at the tracks by sharing 5% of casino revenues. One by one, track executives and owners preened before the committee in a show not without theater. An editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal noted that former governor Julian Carroll "ranted and raved like a revivalist preacher urging legislators to stand up and declare their belief in casino gambling...."
A few lawmakers were leaning favorably toward the consortium's view when the 73-year-old Bassett, who had waited until the end, made his way to the witness table and sat down. In calm, measured tones, he struck all the most reverent and familiar chords, speaking of how Keeneland had striven for 60 years to preserve "the traditions of racing," of how it had been "chartered as a showcase for the breeding industry," and of its hope of keeping the sport as it was meant to be. "We feel at this time that it would be injudicious, incompatible and injurious to implement casino gambling," Bassett said quietly. And then: "We are not going to cave in to the hypothetical threat of a mythical armada cruising down the Ohio from Ashland to Paducah under the disguise of a legislative act that has yet to he passed in most of our neighboring states...."
This was the coup de grâce, the moment that "Kentucky to the Front" became "Casinos to the Rear." That was 17 months ago, but even today it is remembered as the Mythical Armada Speech, the one that killed casinos dead in Frankfort. This struggle was not played out in some racing outback of the Republic, but rather at the very spiritual and ancestral home of the sport, in a state where a little chestnut colt named Aristides won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, where Man o' War and Count Fleet and Secretariat stood at stud and are buried now, where the breeding and raising and racing of horses, the fastest on earth, are forms of human endeavor quite as firmly rooted in the fabric of things as the oaks that grip the rolling earth along the Paris Pike. That this nettlesome business of riverboat casinos should stir such a maelstrom, right there at the heart of a whole way of life, revealed how transpiercing an issue it had become.
It is everywhere. Reins flapping, blinkered and riderless, it is the loose horse in racing's clubhouse, kicking over silver tea sets and crunching toes. From South Florida across New Orleans to New Mexico, from Southern California across Nebraska to the Great Lakes, from New England south through New Jersey and Atlantic City to the old Maryland circuit, no single subject raises more foam and fury than that of the marriage, whether proposed or already consummated, of casino gambling and thoroughbred racing.
"It is the most terrifying thing that I can imagine happening to our sport," says Kentucky breeder Josephine Abercrombie, the owner of Pin Oak Stud near Versailles. "This is the one thing that could single-handedly do our sport in."
Ah, but wait. "There's no place in the world where casinos and pari-mutuel racing have ever coexisted, but that doesn't mean we can't!" says Richard L. Duchossois, who poured $200 million of his own money into rebuilding Arlington Park, a palace of a racetrack outside Chicago, but who now expects to take a 35% hit in his handle this season. Last fall a giant floating casino called the Grand Victoria—with 977 slot machines, 39 blackjack tables, seven roulette wheels, eight craps tables and room enough for 1,736 people—opened for business on the Fox River in Elgin, just 12 miles from Arlington's front door.
Duchossois beseeched the state legislature for the right to open a casino, and he threatened to padlock his doors this year when it refused. He backed off that dime, but only after the state allowed him to cut his 1995 racing dates, and hence his losses, from 131 days to 55. Still hinting darkly that this might be Arlington's final year unless he can get relief to compete with the boat, Duchossois intends to continue his quest for a hybrid creation that he calls a racino. "Casino and racing can coexist," he says. "If "they can't, the racing and breeding industry is going to self-destruct."
If casinos today constitute what prominent owner and breeder John Ed Anthony calls "the greatest threat to our industry in modern history," they are merely the latest to rock a sport whose decline has been linked to its failure to deal intelligently with other perceived threats to its survival. The paradox is that most of these so-called dangers—simulcasting, lotteries and the exploding influence of television—might have helped revive the sport had its leaders recognized soon enough the potential for harnessing them. That some industry leaders are now strongly resisting casinos suggests to many that the sport is once again turning against, rather than embracing, a source of strength.