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Kentucky casino supporters increasingly mum

By Gregory A. Hall Courier-Journal

Support for a constitutional amendment on casino gambling appears to be waning, even among those who are for it.

Champions of casino gambling aren't saying much, although the issue is unlikely to disappear completely from debate without being put on the ballot.

The reasons are varied:

â ¢ More racetracks are embracing the slot-like Instant Racing game as an alternative to casinos. The Kentucky Equine Education Project, once the leader of the horse industry's pro-casino effort, spending about $1.4 million during the 2006 legislative session alone, says it is focused on other issues - though it remains pro-casino under circumstances that favor the horse industry. Politicians say the disagreements within the horse industry are a bigger impediment than politics.

â ¢ Political issues remain, such as a $100,000 contribution by Churchill Downs Inc. to a political action committee whose goal is to elect conservatives in legislative races this fall. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said his previously announced plans to make a casino amendment House Bill 1 are now in question.

â ¢ The casino market is showing signs of saturation as casinos in New Jersey close, and others in Indiana and Ohio compete for players.

"The oversaturation of casino gambling throughout the country combined with reluctance (of) numerous segments in the horse industry to embrace gaming combine to make its chances less likely and less urgent," said Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.

Thayer sponsored one of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's efforts in 2012 to get a casino amendment on the ballot.

Thayer said he doesn't know what it would take for the issue to get momentum in the future.

"It seems that many parts of the horse industry have stabilized, particularly on the breeding and sales side," Thayer said.

Next year will be Beshear's last shot at passing gambling legislation. But its chances are damaged leading up to the 2015 legislative session.

"I don't know at this point whether it's dead or not," Beshear said. "It's certainly not in good shape - with Churchill's public contribution that's going to be used against House Democrats. That obviously hurts the effort, because House Democrats have been one of the main supporters of the gaming issue. So we'll see if we can get by that and see if we can have any movement this next session. But it certainly makes it harder."

The Next Generation Leadership Fund, which received the Churchill money, transferred nearly all of its cash to its affiliated Kentucky political committee, which is registered to spend money either this year or next for Kentucky's 2015 primary elections.

The House remains the only chamber to pass a casino bill - which it did during a 2009 special session. That bill and the one sponsored by Thayer for Beshear died in the Republican-majority Senate.

Churchill continues to support expanded gambling in Kentucky.

The Louisville-based casino and racing company "still believes that casino gaming in Kentucky is the only financially viable way in which Kentucky's racing industry can compete with the now 23 states ... that now provide strong support to their racing and breeding industries with casino gaming," spokeswoman Courtney Yopp Norris said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Keeneland Race Course, which has plans for Instant Racing gambling parlors in Lexington and southeastern Kentucky, isn't pushing for casinos.

Instant Racing is a pari-mutuel alternative to slot machines where players make bets on previously run races.

The Kentucky Supreme Court effectively declared the game legal earlier this year but allowed a lawsuit to proceed that challenged the legality of the game on the issue of whether the machines are legal.

"Our focus at Keeneland remains on our core products of thoroughbred racing and sales, and we have no plans for expanded gaming to be part of our legislative agenda," chief operating officer Vince Gabbert said.

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