By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
FLORENCE - Put together horse racing, bourbon, good food and lots of rich people, and the politicians will surely follow.
Such was the case Saturday for the running of the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park, a Kentucky Derby prep race that drew a crowd of thousands, including some of the state's political thoroughbreds.
This is a statewide election year in Kentucky, with hotly contested May primaries for governor and other down-ticket races. Many of the candidates came to Florence for a chance to mingle in the Marker's Mark VIP tent with the well-heeled and well-connected.
Tickets for the tent were $150 a person.
Republican Bob Heleringer of Louisville is running for lieutenant governor with gubernatorial candidate Steve Nunn. Heleringer, a former state lawmaker, said he worked at Turfway in the early 1970s while attending Xavier University.
"This is a great event," said Heleringer, who like the other candidates, was working the crowd between races. "It's hard to believe this is actually campaigning. This is a lot of fun."
Heleringer, a lawyer, is part of a lawsuit challenging the Kentucky residency of one of his primary opponents, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Hunter Bates of Oldham County.
Bates, who is running with GOP gubernatorial front-runner Ernie Fletcher, is a former aide to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Louisville Republican. Heleringer and others contend that since Bates lived in Virginia for the past six years while working for McConnell in Washington he does not meet the constitutional requirement of living in the state six years before running for state office.
Bates is fighting the lawsuit, filed in Oldham County Circuit Court, by maintaining he voted in Kentucky by absentee ballot and owned a residence while working in Virginia. If he loses the challenge, Bates could forced off the ticket.
"It's all about integrity and the election laws in the state and the constitution. And the constitution says you have to have lived here the last six years," Heleringer said. "We know the Democrats are waiting to challenge him, so it's best to get this out now and do it in house, within the party."
Fletcher and Bates were not at the race. Both had prior campaign and fund-raising commitments. But Fletcher, a Lexington Congressman who represents Kentucky's Sixth District, was in Boone County Saturday morning to open his Northern Kentucky campaign headquarters.
Boone County Judge-executive Gary Moore, a Fletcher supporter, was among those working the crowd on the candidate's behalf.
Moore suggested the challenge to Bates' residency is politically motivated.
"It is kind of odd that the same day they field this case was the day the (campaign) fund-raising reports came out showing Fletcher just smoking them in fundraising," Moore said.
Other gubernatorial candidates at the Lane's End were state Republican Sen. Virgil Moore of Leitchfield and Democrat Bruce Lunsford of Louisville, a native of southern Kenton County.
Educator Cliff Wallace of Grant County, the superintendent of the Williamstown Independent Schools, was telling people he met in the crowded tent that in 2004 he will be a candidate for state Senate.
Wallace plans to retire in June and begin raising money and campaigning to unseat Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, whose Senate district includes the southern half of Kenton County.
"I want people to know I'm going to be a candidate, and this is a great place to see a lot of people," Wallace said.
Thayer was also at the event, touting his accomplishments in Frankfort after just a few short weeks in office. He was elected in a special late January election to fill an open Senate seat.
"Already I've helped bring $11.25 million in tax credits to Northern Kentucky for the Newport on the Levee and Hofbrauhaus developments, almost $4 million in water and sewer line improvements for my district, and I helped cut taxes on the trucking industry by over $3 million," Thayer said.
"If Cliff Wallace wants to come after that, go to it," he said.
Candidates for the so-called down ticket constitutional office were also spotted in the crowd, including Republican Secretary of State candidate Trey Grayson of Park Hills and state Auditor Ed Hatchett, on of three Democrats running for attorney general.
"I'm encouraged, I'm getting out all over the state, and I'm being encouraged to do what I do best, and that's fight public corruption," Hatchett said. "Judy (Hatchett) and I have been to this event for the last five years, we think it is a wonderful event and it's a chance for us to campaign among Northern Kentuckians."
U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat, attended the event and handed out a trophy in one of the races. Also in the tent was Boone County Republican Geoff Davis, who lost to Lucas last year and plans to run against him in 2004.
"This is a social event for us," said Davis. "And it represents a lot of what Kentucky is all about ... and it's a great signature event for Northern Kentucky."
Kevin Murphy, an Edgewood lawyer challenging Davis in the 2004 GOP congressional primary, said he loves coming to the race each year but can't pick many winners.
"All the horses I pick have three legs," he joked.
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