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Walking Horse Breed Has Funding Restored

Editor's Note:  The following story was made available by the Associated Press.

By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has restored funding for the Tennessee walking horse breed, with a catch.
The commission approved a measure on Tuesday that will allow eligible owners and breeders to receive money from the Kentucky Walking Horse-Breeders Incentive Fund starting in 2010 if the shows their horses participate in pass inspection from one of three agencies: the Natural Walking Horse Association, the Friends of Sound Horses or the Horse Protection Commission.

"We wanted to speak for the horses," said racing commission member Ned Bonnie, who led the panel's investigation into illegal practices within the walking horse industry. "We hope this sends a message."

The commission had suspended funding amid allegations some horses were intentionally harmed to change the way they walk. At issue is the illegal practice of soring, which involves irritating the horse's foreleg and hoof to force the trademark highstepping gait of Tennessee walking horses.
Almost 40 years ago, federal laws were enacted to eliminate soring among walking horses. The pain from chemical irritants causes horses to lift their front feet higher and faster as they compete for blue ribbons, ornate trophies and prize money.

In its report, the racing commission determined that the Kentucky Walking Horse Association has "not been consistent with the best interests of the walking horse industry or the KHRC."

By requiring owners and breeders to use one of the three approved organizations, Bonnie said the racing commission wants to assure better treatment of the horses.

Bonnie said response from the horse walking community has been mixed.

"I think there's some people that want to murder me, but there's others that think I should be an icon," Bonnie said. "It was important for us to make a statement that the welfare of the horse is paramount."

The commission's vote approved the release of the funding immediately, but members of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association asked the incentive fund money for 2009 be placed in escrow and made available in 2010 since the show season is nearly complete.

Donna Benefield, administrative director for the Horse Protection Commission, said the move by the racing commission is designed to reward owners for positive behavior.

"Hopefully this will help improve the image of the walking horse," Benefield.

Also Tuesday Ellis Park owner Ron Geary said he's undecided about whether he will try and reserve racing dates for the 2010 season.
Ellis Park ran a limited schedule this summer due to competition from tracks in Indiana that can provide higher purse money because of funding they receive from expanded gaming.

Geary has until Oct. 1 to ask the commission for dates next summer. He declined to put any odds on whether racing will return to the venerable track in Henderson, Ky.

Numbers from the spring meet were mixed. Attendance was up 23 percent, but total handle was down 40 percent, though much of the loss was attributed to the shorter meet.

"We're exploring all options," Geary said. "We'll take some time to look at it 100 different ways before we make a decision."

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