Churchill Downs horse deaths shine ugly light on lacking industry regulations

Over the past several days, seven horses died as horse racing fans geared up for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

The deaths are now under investigation as animal rights groups continue to express outrage. And the latest spate of horse deaths raises questions about the lack of regulations within the industry and whether contributions from deep-pocketed horse-racing interests are fueling the problem. 

To put the problem into context, note that the Ohio Casino Control Commission, Ohio’s lead gambling regulator, has 55 of its 111 employees working on enforcement. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, by contrast, is launching its sports betting operations with a staff of 40. Only four of those will work on enforcement.

“They’ve systematically set up the racing commission to really allow the tracks to regulate themselves, which is not a good situation for the taxpayers,” Michael Barley, chief public affairs officer for Pace-O-Matic Inc., told WCPO 9 in Cincinnati. 

Barley raised a potential issue, one that could affect regulations and lead to a lax regulatory environment: Pay for play politics. 

“They have a lot of power in Frankfort,” Barley continued, referring to industry power players’ contributions to political officeholders. “And they push and are successful in getting a very lax regulatory structure.”

The WCPO 9 investigation into Kentucky’s regulatory framework found that Kentucky had just one enforcement employee for every $2 billion wagered. By contrast, that number is $181 million in Indiana and $246 million in Ohio. The enforcement arm has gone six years without a meeting.

Yet despite all of that, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is participating in an investigation into the horse deaths, according to NPR.

A look into campaign finance records shows hundreds of contributions from top Churchill Downs employees to various elected officials and candidates. In May alone, 30 contributions rolled in for gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft. Donors included most of the Churchill Downs C-suite, including CEO William Carstanjen, Executive Vice President Marcia Dall, Vice President of Communications Tonya Abelyn and Vice President of Gaming Operations Timothy Bryant. 

Donations ranged from $250 to $2,000, with a total of $35,500 in contributions to just Craft in May alone.

Since 2006, Carstanjen or his wife have given nearly 250 donations to dozens of elected officials or candidates totaling nearly $368,000.

Given the recent influx to Craft, it seems possible Churchill Downs is attempting to secure favor from the state’s next possible Governor. Craft is a top tier candidate for the GOP nomination for Governor and, if she wins the Primary, would likely face incumbent Democratic Governor Andy Beshear.

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