Judge rules instant racing machines don't violate Kentucky state constitution

LEXINGTON, Ky. – A Kentucky circuit court judge has ruled that gambling devices in operation at four facilities in the state comply with the state’s definition of parimutuel wagering, an opinion that lifts a lingering cloud over the legality of the machines.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, Judge Thomas Wingate of Franklin Circuit Court rejected the assertions of a conservative religious group, the Family Foundation, that the devices, known as historical horseracing machines, violated a state constitutional prohibition on casino gambling. The devices use the results of previous run horse races to determine payouts to winners, and the machines have generated tens of millions of dollars for racetracks, with some of the proceeds used to bolster purses.

“The arguments raised by the respondent, the Family Foundation, are noble, moral, and altruistic; however, the arguments … fail as the [devices] are structured to operate in accordance with the parimutuel system of wagering,” Wingate wrote.

The Family Foundation first filed a challenge to the devices eight years ago, shortly after the state’s racing commission adopted rules allowing for the operation of the machines by parimutuel license holders. The group argued that the machines were indistinguishable from slot machines and therefore violated the ban on casino gambling.

Prior to the ruling, Wingate oversaw a process of discovery that included 96 findings that were briefly detailed in the opinion. Technically, the ruling applies to only one manufacturer of the machines, Exacta Systems, which designed and installed the devices in place at Kentucky Downs when the Family Foundation initially challenged the devices. However, the ruling is expected to apply to all manufacturers, as the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission applies the same rules and regulations regardless of the make of the machines.

The devices are now also in operation at Ellis Park, the Red Mile in Lexington (in partnership with Keeneland), and the Trackside training center in Louisville that is owned by Churchill Downs. Betting through the machines is expected to top $1 billion this year.

Wingate wrote in his ruling that he agreed in some ways with the Family Foundation’s argument about the operation of the machines.

“The machines look like Vegas slot machines, they are advertised as ‘Vegas-style gambling,’ and a casual observer would be hard pressed to discern the difference,” he wrote. However, Wingate concluded, “the Court finds that the design of the device is merely for entertainment purposes.”