It’s not unusual to see groups of red and blue divided in Kentucky, especially at this time of year. Most times, it’s the Louisville Cardinals versus the Kentucky Wildcats. However, that divide, while still sports-related, reached new levels in the Bluegrass State on Thursday and had nothing to do directly with those archrivals. On a historic day in the commonwealth, as sports betting in Kentucky finally became legal, Democratic and Republican leaders celebrated the landmark occasion mostly separately.
While Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, placed the first bet at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Thursday morning, Republican state lawmakers led by Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and state Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, were at the grand opening for the Caesars Sportsbook Kentucky at Red Mile in Lexington. Hours later, it was Beshear’s turn to visit Red Mile and hold a ceremonial ribbon cutting. Meanwhile, Thayer and state Rep. Mike Clines visited Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky to place bets. Thayer and Clines appeared hours after Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman placed the first wager there.
While the passage of House Bill 551 was truly a bipartisan effort and celebrated by Republicans and Democrats alike back in March when lawmakers secured the necessary votes on the final day of the session, the difference now is that it’s campaign season. And Beshear, who made sports betting a key part of his platform to win the election four years ago, is taking full advantage of its passage as he seeks another four-year term. In some ways, sports betting has become more politicized in Kentucky than in any other state. That includes states that held voter referendums on this issue.
Democrats’ Betting on Beshear’
It wasn’t just Thursday’s event that has irked some Republicans. Sports betting’s passage and launch have been a key topic in the governor’s social media feed. The Kentucky Democratic Party also sells buttons and stickers on its site with the phrase “I’m betting on Beshear.” “I’m not really interested in doing anything that’s going to help Andy Beshear get reelected,” Thayer told BetKentucky.com at Turfway. “Additionally, I find it offensive that he is trying to take unilateral credit for sports betting when actually he was an impediment to his passage.”
Thayer, who was the primary supporter of the measure in the Senate, said that some Republican lawmakers withheld support for HB 551 because he said they feared Beshear would campaign on it. While those lawmakers eventually changed their minds, Thayer said their fears proved true. More than a few Republicans also felt that Beshear wanted to ensure he was the first to place a wager by making his a few minutes before the official start time of 10 a.m. ET.
Sports Betting ‘A Victory For The Legislative Branch’
With the gubernatorial election now 61 days away, Meredith, the primary sponsor of HB 551, said it made a bipartisan celebration with the governor more difficult. The morning event in Lexington did feature a couple of Democratic lawmakers from the area who voted to legalize sports betting. Meredith credited Beshear for supporting the bill and helping pass it. Still, sports betting’s legalization was “a legislatively driven effort” since then-state Rep. Adam Koenig filed the first bill the year after the Supreme Court overturned PASPA.
“This is a victory for the legislative branch, and the legislative branch led by Republicans,” he told BetKentucky.com, your trusted source for information on the best Kentucky betting apps. “But I was pleased to have some Democrats who were very supportive of the bill who were there with us today.” Beshear was asked about the Republican talking points after he placed his wager at Churchill Downs. He told reporters that Meredith worked closely with his office daily and that they worked hard to flip several lawmakers. “They all know the truth,” the governor said. “It’s just an election season, but why don’t we all just be happy today? Sports betting is legal in Kentucky. Let’s not play politics with it.”
Still Some Room For Agreement
Kentucky Republicans and Democrats did agree on at least one thing. Thursday’s launch, one of the quickest in the country, was due largely to the work of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which is tasked with regulating sports betting in the state. Beshear noted the work of Public Protection Cabinet Secretary Ray Perry, KHRC Chairman Jonathan Rabinowitz, and KHRC Executive Director Jamie Eads for meeting the deadline he set for having sports betting up and running before the start of the NFL season.
Thayer, who rarely sees eye-to-eye with Beshear, agreed, saying the commission deserved all the credit for a smooth launch. He also said the KHRC’s work shows that it was the right call to make them the regulators. “If we formed a new gaming commission, we wouldn't have sports betting today,” Thayer said. “It would be three months off.”
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