Governor’s Derby guests?

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT —  Unlike his predecessors, Gov. Andy Beshear has declined to identify friends and political supporters who buy prime tickets to the Kentucky Derby made available by Churchill Downs each year for the governor’s guests.

The Louisville racetrack sets aside large numbers of Derby tickets for sale at face value to Kentucky elected officials, including hundreds to the governor’s group — many of them coveted hard-to-get prime seats. 

One purpose is to allow the state’s chief executive to entertain corporate executives considering investments in the Bluegrass State on that one day of the year when Kentucky shines in the national spotlight.

News articles about this time-honored practice over the past 25 years emphasized that Churchill Downs set aside far more tickets for the governor’s group than are needed by the state’s official corporate guests. 

Over those years, when asked by reporters, Beshear’s four immediate predecessors — including his father Gov. Steve Beshear — withheld the names of the official economic development guests but released lists of names of others who were able to buy the tickets from the governor’s batch. In each case, many of the tickets wound up in the hands of political donors, lobbyists and other supporters.

Those governors took some heat from ethics watchdogs who questioned why Churchill Downs — a major political contributor and potent lobbying presence in Frankfort — needed to give the governor control over enough hard-to-get tickets to take care of his friends.

But Beshear’s office says it has no lists of friends and supporters who got those tickets last year. Like his predecessors, Beshear has set-up a nonprofit corporation to broker his ticket allotment and manage his Derby events “for the promotion of economic development in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” 

Beshear’s nonprofit — called First Saturday in May Inc. —  declined to say how many tickets it purchased from Churchill last year and declined to release records showing who it sold those tickets to.

Churchill Downs failed to respond to questions emailed to it by Kentucky Lantern and numerous follow-up emails and phone calls. 

Though Kentucky Lantern had no luck in learning from Beshear who bought tickets from his allotment in 2023, other public records show that a large number of tickets from the governor’s batch may have been purchased by his political supporters in the Democratic Governors Association.

‘Why are you not letting us know…?’

Norman Ornstein, an authority on ethics in government and emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said he has no serious problem with the underlying story of Churchill Downs setting aside so many tickets for the governor’s group.

“My only question now would be: Why are you not letting us know what other governors have let us know?”  Ornstein said in a phone interview.

Delaney Marsco, director of ethics at the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, had a similar observation. “If this sort of information is not released it raises an appearance that something nefarious may be going on,” Marsco said.

Demand for good Derby tickets exceeds supply, even as the face-value cost of tickets has soared in recent years. 

Doug Dearen, owner of a Kentucky Derby tour, travel package and ticketing business, explains on his company’s website, “Horsemen, corporations, families and government have had Kentucky Derby tickets in their possession for over 130 years, which makes this one of the most difficult tickets to obtain in all of sports.”

As such, many Derby fans must go online to the secondary market to buy tickets at prices set by sellers. (A Courier-Journal story on Monday said Ticketmaster listed the prices of reserved Derby seats that day “starting at $923 and selling upward of $10,781.”)

But six news articles over the past 25 years (by The Courier-Journal, Lexington Herald-Leader or Associated Press) reported that many friends of the governors over that era got their tickets at face value from the governor’s batch.

Those articles say that the practice of past governors has been — upon request of a reporter — to release the number of tickets allotted to him and the names of those who bought them. They released the names soon after the Derby arguing that any list of names released before the Derby was preliminary and subject to last minute changes. Also, news articles show Beshear’s predecessors declined to release names of the official corporate guests on the grounds that doing so could damage prospective negotiations.

Those news articles reported that Churchill sold as many as 553 tickets to the governors group while Paul Patton was governor in 1999, and as few as 237 in 2016 under Matt Bevin. In between, the number was about 360 tickets.

Kentucky Lantern filed a request under the Open Records Act with the governor’s office in August for documents showing the names of who got tickets for the 2023 Derby from the governor’s batch.

The response of Beshear’s office was the opposite of his predecessors: Beshear’s office released documents showing names of 38 official corporate guests of the state’s economic development and tourism agencies in 2023. But it said it had no lists of names of anyone else who bought the 2023 Derby tickets.

First Saturday in May, Inc.

Detailed information about who buys tickets from the governor’s batch is retained by First Saturday in May Inc. But its treasurer, Melinda Karns, refused Kentucky Lantern’s request to review its records that would show how many tickets it got in 2023 and who bought them.

Karns, a Lexington certified public accountant who is also treasurer of the Kentucky Democratic Party and was treasurer of Beshear’s campaigns for attorney general and governor, did release the group’s most recent tax return (Form 990) for its fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2022. (That form showed annual revenues in 2021-22 of $820,057 and expenses of $758,531. But no names of Derby ticket buyers or donors to the nonprofit are on that form.)

In response to emails that pressed for specifics, Karns said in an email, “The Form 990 that we have provided to you shows the amount of money spent by the First Saturday in May on the Kentucky Derby. Additional tickets to the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby were privately purchased from Churchill Downs by the First Saturday in May at no expense to the Commonwealth.”

One of the iconic Churchill Downs spires frames a field of Thoroughbreds on that one day of the year when Kentucky shines in the national spotlight. (Photo by Tom Eblen)

Democratic Governors Association

A disclosure report the Democratic Governors Association filed with the Internal Revenue Service last year shows that it apparently purchased many of those additional tickets.

The report shows that in early 2023 it paid $209,608 to First Saturday in May Inc. for “catering facilities.”

The Democratic Governors Association is a well-heeled national political fund dedicated to electing Democratic governors. The group’s priority last year was to reelect Beshear. It donated a massive $19 million to a super PAC called Defending Bluegrass Values that financed an independent campaign that helped Beshear win reelection in November over Republican Daniel Cameron.

DGA spokesman Sam Newton declined to say what exactly the DGA bought from First Saturday in May for $209,608. His emailed response to a question asking if the payment was for Derby tickets was that the money was for “a very successful event at the Kentucky Derby” that the DGA had hosted for several years.

Barren County boo-boo

The DGA’s involvement with Beshear’s 2023 Derby festivities briefly surfaced during the governor’s race last summer, causing some embarrassment to Beshear, the DGA, and especially for the Glasgow Barren County Industrial Development Economic Authority.

A disclosure form the DGA filed with the IRS listed the authority as a donor of $12,500, and that donation was included in news stories about donors to the DGA.

Officials of the authority board said during their August meeting that the donation was a mistake. The authority is partly taxpayer funded and barred from making political contributions, the authority’s chairman said.

Board member Larry Glass took responsibility. According to several news reports, Glass said he was approached by a person with connections to the Beshear administration and asked if he would be interested in representing Barren County at the governor’s Derby events where he could network with executives considering investment in Kentucky.

Glass said he was personally not interested, but suggested that it would be good for the board’s executive director to attend. Glass said he personally paid $12,500 to the authority — the cost for the executive director and her husband to attend the governor’s Derby Eve party, the Kentucky Oaks on the day before the Derby, and the Derby. The authority, in turn, wrote a $12,500 check to the DGA.

Glass told the Lexington Herald-Leader it was a mistake to funnel the money through the authority instead of paying the DGA himself. He said he could not remember who from the Beshear administration had approached him, but said he was not pressured to make the donation, the Herald-Leader reported.

The DGA later refunded the $12,500 to the authority, and an authority official said that amount was in turn refunded to Glass.

Republicans winning race for Churchill political dollars

Churchill Downs is a very big donor to political committees, and it backed Beshear’s reelection in a big way. More than 40 of its officials and employees combined to contribute $85,500 to Beshear’s reelection committees, and Churchill itself gave $275,000 last year to the DGA.

But Churchill and its executives have given far more to Republicans than Democrats in recent years, particularly to committees supporting incumbent Republican state legislators. And support of the Republican lawmakers was crucial in 2023 when the General Assembly passed a sports betting bill favorable to Kentucky’s racetracks and a bill to ban a game proliferating in parts of Kentucky — called a “gray” machine by opponents — that race tracks saw as illegal competition. 

This year alone Churchill has donated $200,000 to a political action committee called Commonwealth Conservative Coalition that is supporting mainstream Republican candidates for the legislature against their “liberty” opponents in upcoming Republican primary elections. Also this year, Churchill has donated $100,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky’s fund drive to renovate its headquarters in Frankfort.

Yes, other officials have access to Derby tickets

Churchill Downs has long made tickets available for sale to not just the governor, but also to all 138 state legislators, the statewide elected officials other than the governor, Kentucky’s members of the U.S. House and Senate and Louisville’s mayor.

Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne, a Prospect Republican, said each state legislator is given the opportunity to buy a box of six Derby seats. He sees no problem with the practice. “It’s the premier annual event in Kentucky and people expect state leaders to be there,” Osborne said. “… A more common reaction I get from people is that they are surprised to learn that we have to buy the tickets.”

Where Gov. Andy Beshear’s unknown guests won’t be sitting: The infield at Churchill Downs. (Photo by Tom Eblen)


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