At the Red Mile, horse racing’s ‘evolution’ looks like a casino

September 26, 2015
Instant racing machines in Lexington's first legal gambling parlor at Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

Instant racing machines at the Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram


I went to the Red Mile last week to check out what the 140-year-old harness track calls “The Evolution of Horse Racing.”

It was sunny and mild, the kind of afternoon I hope for each April and October so I can slip away to Keeneland for a few hours. I love to watch the horses run, place a few bets and soak up the atmosphere.

This afternoon, the weather didn’t matter. Horse racing had evolved indoors. I found a cavernous hall filled with 902 machines that flashed and chimed amid pulsing background music.

The man at the front desk said this $42 million facility had been busy since it opened Sept. 12. I must have caught a lull. There were only a couple of dozen patrons, an even mix of men and women, blacks and whites. Most were older than me. A few had canes; at least two used walkers.

The next thing I noticed was there were no horses. Amazing! Horse racing had evolved to the point that horses were no longer necessary.

When I walked in, the man at the front desk issued me a “rewards” card on a red lanyard, an instruction sheet and a $5 voucher. I chose a machine with a comfy seat near the bar and got started.

That’s when I saw horses, or at least grainy images of them. They were in videos that flashed briefly on the machine’s tiny screen after I placed a bet and pushed a few buttons.

The machines looked like slots. The hall looked like a casino. I had to remind myself that this joint venture of the Red Mile and Keeneland was really The Evolution of Horse Racing, presumably “as it was meant to be.”

What distinguishes these machines from slots, proponents say, is that they are forms of pari-mutuel wagering, and winners are chosen by the outcome of thousands of previously run horse races rather than by random number generators.

I placed a bet on the machine and chose my numbers — the order of finish for three horses that once raced against one another. To help me choose, I could look at charts indicating past performances of the horse, jockey and trainer.

I lost my first couple of free voucher dollars trying to figure out how the machine worked. On my third bet, lights flashed and bells clanged and the machine told me I was a winner. I printed a voucher and discovered I had won $84, although I’m not sure how.

I tried a couple more machines before deciding it was a good time to cash my voucher and call it a day.

The Family Foundation, a conservative activist group, has gone to court to challenge the legality of these “historical racing” machines. The case before Franklin Circuit Court is complex, and it likely will take a couple of years to decide.

The legal question comes down to whether these machines are pari-mutuel wagering, which is legal in Kentucky, or slots, which are not. Can something that looks and quacks like a duck actually be an evolved horse?

If the tracks lose in court, they may have recovered their investment by then. The General Assembly also could change the law. Legislators may not want to give up this new source of tax revenue, not to mention the 200 new jobs at the Red Mile and more at facilities near Henderson and Franklin.

I have nothing against gambling, when it is enjoyed responsibly by people who can afford it. But from a public policy standpoint, gambling encourages a “something for nothing” mentality among politicians and voters that a modern, progressive state can be created without raising anyone’s taxes.

Many horse people argue that expanded gambling revenue is essential to the survival of their industry. I understand their concern. Without the promise of this new facility, the Red Mile probably would have been redeveloped years ago. Neither harness nor Thoroughbred racing are as popular as they once were.

However, the experiences of other states show that when expanded-gambling revenue starts flowing, politicians lose interest in subsidizing the horse industry.

There are no easy answers to preserving Kentucky’s signature horse industry. But horsemen could take pointers from the once-struggling and now-thriving bourbon whiskey industry: Improve your product and do a better job of marketing to make it more popular.

Otherwise, it can be a fine line between evolution and devolution.

Gobb, Davender give reasons to rethink justice

August 31, 2010

Steal $100,000 in a University of Kentucky ticket scam, as former UK basketball star Ed Davender did, and you could get eight years in prison.

Steal five times that much from Blue Grass Airport, as former Blue Grass Airport director Mike Gobb and three of his assistants did, and you could get no jail time at all.

Those recent cases left me scratching my head, and I wasn’t alone. No wonder people question the fairness of our judicial system and speculate that punishment is influenced by wealth, race, class, the skill of your attorney and the whims of your judge.

Mike Gobb, center. Photo by Matt Goins

Mike Gobb, center. Photo by Matt Goins

“We have completely lost the consistency that once existed in our sentencing system,” said Robert Lawson, a UK law professor who wrote much of the foundation for the state criminal code and has spent four decades studying crime and punishment in Kentucky.

“There’s a need for a complete and total overhaul,” Lawson said.

While we are at it, he said, we should rethink punishment for non-violent criminals to make it more effective and affordable.

Kentucky’s 1974 criminal code was designed to promote rehabilitation, because most offenders return to society sooner or later. But subsequent “get tough on crime” laws and public opinion have made the system inconsistent and often unfair, Lawson said.

The problem, he said, is that “we’ve forgotten the difference between the people we’re afraid of and those we’re mad at.”

Ed Davender, left. Photo by David Perry

Ed Davender, left. Photo by David Perry

In the court of public opinion, most people would say that Davender, Gobb and his assistants deserved jail time — perhaps many years in prison.

“The public is angry; they don’t want to see anybody go free unless it’s a relative,” Lawson said. “They put a lot of pressure on judges who have to run for office.”

That attitude helps explain why the United States, where the incarceration rate has almost quadrupled since 1980, locks up more people per capita than any other nation, and why Kentucky incarcerates more than almost any other state. It also helps explain why governments are going broke.

Everybody wants violent criminals — the people we’re afraid of — locked away so they can’t hurt us. But Lawson said his research has found that the vast majority of felons incarcerated in Kentucky are there for drug or property crimes that didn’t involve violence.

Kentucky’s crime rate since 1970 has risen about 3 percent. But the number of incarcerated felons has grown from fewer than 3,000 then to more than 21,000, and the state’s corrections budget has grown from $10 million to more than $450 million.

Those staggering figures have caused many groups, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, to call for reform. That’s because paying to lock up so many people leaves Kentucky too little money for education and other priorities.

But many prosecutors “scare the public,” and many politicians are afraid of being labeled “soft on crime,” Lawson said. Ratings-driven TV news is all crime all the time, even though Kentucky’s crime rate is relatively low. “There is enormous fear out there,” he said.

There also are human costs to excessive incarceration. If offenders are simply warehoused, and not rehabilitated, they come out worse than they went in. That’s especially true of the 7,000 felons now in overcrowded local jails that were not designed to house prisoners long-term. “We’re making them meaner than hell under the circumstances we’re having them live in,” he said.

Prison is appropriate punishment for some non-violent criminals, but sentences have grown excessively long. “One year is a lot of time in prison if people would go look at them,” said Lawson.

A more appropriate and cost-effective punishment for many non-violent criminals would be community service, hefty fines and home confinement. People like Gobb and Davender, who have useful skills and pose little public safety threat, could repay taxpayers with money, work and service rather than be locked away at a cost of nearly $20,000 a year.

Fines would be easier on affluent offenders than poor ones, but amounts could be adjusted to make them more equitable. Only Gobb’s punishment included community service, but Lawson said the 500 hours required of Gobb “doesn’t sound like enough to me for what he did.”

Kentucky’s criminal code needs an overhaul. And while we are at it, we must figure out ways for more non-violent criminals to pay their debt to society without costing us all a fortune.