The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Damon Thayer
Republican Damon Thayer was first elected to the Kentucky State Senate representing the 17th District in a 2003 special election and now serves as Senate Majority Floor Leader, a key position that helps guide bills through the legislative process.
Thayer, 45, went to work in the Thoroughbred industry immediately after graduation from Michigan State University in 1989. He served as media relations/communications director for 10 years (Thistledown in Ohio, Maryland Jockey Club, Turfway Park in Kentucky), then joined the Breeders' Cup in 1999, where he spent eight years in management positions, including vice president/event management. The interview originally appeared in the PR Special print newsletter published by the Paulick Report staff in conjunction with the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July Sale earlier this week.
Since you played a major legislative role in getting a tax incentive for the Breeders' Cup to be hosted in Kentucky, were you surprised by the recent announcement that the 2014 event will take place for the third year in a row at Santa Anita Park?
I was surprised and disappointed, as a legislator, fan and former Breeders' Cup employee. It's an insult, really, to the Kentucky General Assembly that Breeders' Cup completely ignored the tax credit and allowed it to expire. I worked hard to get it passed, it was not easy and, frankly, nobody else in the legislature really cared about it. Santa Anita is a fantastic track, but John Gaines' vision was for a “movable feast” – not a semi-permanent location. It really does a disservice to racing fans and horsemen in the East and Midwest, where most of the racing in this country occurs, and to Central Kentucky nominators who support the Breeders' Cup with nomination fees. The Breeders' Cup should rotate between Churchill Downs, Belmont Park and Santa Anita, with an occasional other suitable site, of which there are several.
How exactly did the tax credit work, and what must happen for it to be brought back?
It allowed the Kentucky host track to retain the state pari-mutuel tax on all in-state wagers, worth about $1-million. It has already been re-authorized twice, and amended to include ITW wagers. It would take an act of the General Assembly to bring it back, as the law required the Breeders' Cup to return every three years, in this case, by 2014. That's why it's called an “incentive,” as opposed to a “charity.”
As someone who has worked in this industry for 28 years, including eight on the Breeders' Cup management team, how would you describe the relationship the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry has with Kentucky legislators? What can be done to improve it?
There is an improved recognition of the importance of the horse industry and that it's not the exclusive “playground for the wealthy.” Most legislators know that it has a huge economic impact and is up there with coal, bourbon, tobacco and auto manufacturing in terms of importance, and that it plays a big role in Kentucky's image. But they also know that the industry has a hard time finding consensus on some big issues, which gives the General Assembly an excuse not to act. Like on any issue, I recommend that people engage their own legislators to improve understanding of the things that matter most to them.
Another year has slipped by without the legislature passing a bill that would allow expanded gaming at racetracks or standalone facilities. What are its chances in coming sessions?
Right now, chances are not very good. Until Gov. Steve Beshear decides to fully engage and go “all in,” and seek a Democratic-sponsor in the House of Representatives, I just don't see any momentum now. There is still time for that to change.
Should people in Kentucky who want slots or casinos for additional revenue fear what we've seen happen in Ontario, where the revenue stream from slots was nearly cut off completely, and in some U.S. states, where elected officials have threatened to or begun to reduce what many of them see as subsidies for an industry that can't stand on its own?
Yes. That's why I have always advocated for a constitutional amendment, where it may be possible to include some sort of revenue protection for purses and breeders incentives. Doing “slots by statute” is not only unconstitutional, but also allows future raids on horse industry funds by the legislature.
Where do you see the racing industry – in Kentucky and elsewhere – heading as a result of the greatly reduced foal crops of recent years that are now resulting in problems for tracks putting together full fields?
It's pretty simple economics, according to the law of supply and demand: to avoid short fields, which the betting public does not enjoy, there will have to be some combination of fewer races and fewer race days. The racetrack side of the sport is long overdue for this sort of correction, which has already occurred on the breeding side of the industry.
As the only legislative member of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council, what is your view of the work that panel?
I was appointed by Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, and reappointed twice by Beshear, a Democrat. Our work to recommend the elimination of both NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and steroids on race day has put Kentucky in a leadership role nationally on racing safety and integrity issues, but we have struggled to lead on the Lasix issue. So far.
Why do you favor eliminating the race-day use of furosemide (Lasix) – the diuretic used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage?
It's pretty well-documented how the U.S. is an island globally when it comes to race-day medication. I believe it is both a horse health and public perception issue for the industry. Lasix use has led to shorter racing careers, more fragile horses and really bad PR for the industry. Let's start with banning its use in all stakes races.
Won't eliminating Lasix make it even more difficult for tracks – especially in Kentucky if all other states allow the drug – to card races with full fields?
That's a red herring by the opponents of change.
What is the status of the phase-out of Lasix passed last year by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission?
The Commission voted for a ban in all stakes races, but has yet to implement the regulation enforcing it. Frankly, it appears the whole movement has lost some steam.
Why did the Interim Joint Committee on Licensing and Occupations vote against another Kentucky Horse Racing Commission regulation requiring third-party administration of Lasix?
The Kentucky HBPA (Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association) spread disinformation about the regulation, created controversy, and made a few phone calls to key members. The vote was 18-1. I was the one who supported the regulation. Fortunately, Gov. Beshear used his executive authority to implement the regulation, the Commission has worked out some kinks in its implementation, and none of the calamitous situations suggested by the KHBPA have come to fruition.
The horse industry – including this publication – have both cheered you and jeered you for some of your policy positions in Frankfort. To your credit, you have been pretty unwavering. Have you been treated fairly?
Yes, it's been so much fun to be thrown “under the bus” by some of my friends (sarcasm implied). I'll let others be the judge of that. I can look at myself in the mirror every day knowing I made the right decision based on my set of core beliefs, what I feel is right for my district and right for Kentucky. If I wanted to flip-flop on my positions to suit the mood du jour, then I would be a Democrat. And I am not.
What are your future political plans?
Right now I am focusing on my new role as the Senate Majority Floor Leader. I am only the third Republican Floor Leader in Kentucky history. We have a historic 24-14 Republican advantage in the Senate, and I am focused on maintaining and growing our GOP Caucus by ensuring that we lead on the major public policy issues that affect Kentucky. We just passed a major new bill, which I sponsored, on public pension reform in a bipartisan consensus that will save Kentucky $10 billion over 20 years. I hope we can build on that momentum.
I have three and a half years left in my Senate term. Some have suggested that I consider running for statewide office in 2015. It's possible that I will, but I have learned that in politics, “You don't pick the time, the time picks you.”