Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Racinos Have Saved the Standardbred Horse Racing Business

How Racinos Have Saved the Standardbred Horse Racing Business

By Evan Weiner

March 24, 2010

(Dover, DE) -- The Minnesota State Legislature has apparently not shut the door to the idea of having “racinos” throughout the state after lawmakers left the idea for dead nearly two weeks ago. The Minnesota House of Agriculture, Rural Economics and Veterans Affairs Finance Committee has given approval to keep the discussion going about putting slots into two of the state’s racetracks.

The revenues that could be raised at the tracks could go to various projects including the funding of a new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

Whether the panel’s recommendation has any legs is debatable at this point. But Minnesota is looking at the “racino” plan again, which is a bit more than New York State is doing at the moment.

Last Sunday, people connected to the thoroughbred racing industry in New York demonstrated in support of putting a “racino” at Aqueduct and Belmont with the thought that by putting video lottery terminals or slot machines in those two tracks along with one in Saratoga would save not only the meets at those three tracks but it would also save all of the ancillary businesses that go with racing including horse farms, breeding, training, and taking care of horses.

Thoroughbred racing in New York State is dying.

The only reason that standardbred racing survives in New York at Yonkers Raceway, Monticello, Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, Finger Lakes Racetrack, Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs is because of the video lottery terminals (VLT) or slot machines.

In 2007, Tim Rooney, who owns Yonkers Raceway, said without the “machines” as he called the VLT or slots, Yonkers Raceway would be a shopping mall.

The Vice President of Horse Racing, Charles Lockhart, at Dover Downs in Dover, DE. said that his Delaware racetrack, which features 133 days of standardbred racing between mid-October and mid-April probably, would be a shopping center too without the slots.

Dover Downs will become a full betting center sometime in the late spring when table games are added to the slots and football betting. The Dover Downs’ ownership group is hoping to increase sports gambling at the facility’s sports bar with additional professional sports betting and is waiting for a court date to explain why there should be more than just parlay betting on NFL games at the facility.

Dover Downs, like just about every other track in the United States was in a steep decline by the 1970s. At one time as late as 1950, horse racing was mentioned in the same breath as boxing and baseball in popularity in the United States. But a number of factors pushed both standardbred and thoroughbred racing into the abyss including the emergence of state sponsored lotteries, Off Track Betting (OTB), and American Indian casinos. The ease with which one could now place a bet had a significant impact on horse racing.
"The first thing was OTB came in," Rooney said in 2007. "And OTB took 30-some percent of the business from us and they were giving them the product in the neighborhoods. There was always a certain element of people who didn't care about the sport — they cared about the gambling aspect of it…then we started televising our racing into the parlors, so it made it easier for them to stay in the city than [come] out here [to Yonkers], so our attendance went down even further. Then you add the other types of gambling: Atlantic City came in, the lottery came in.
"People want to win that $200 million prize. I think the Indian casinos up in Connecticut and having Atlantic City open, it took a lot of business off of the racing industry," Rooney added. "It's a faster game and you don't have to get that racing form, and handicap what the speed rating was, if it was a muddy track, and what jockey or driver switches there are. It's a little more complicated than getting on one of these machines, putting $50 in it, and just pressing buttons."

Lockhart's racetrack is inside the Dover Downs Speedway, which is behind the Dover Downs resort. The track has no horses based at the facility but the horses that do compete stay at nearby farms and are brought to the track on race day. It is rather unlikely there would have been racing or even standard bred horse farms in Delaware without the gaming.

The slots revenues have kept horsemen in Delaware as some of the proceeds from the slots go to the daily purses. Delaware's purses have picked up which means a better caliber horse races in the state and more incentive for horsemen from states other then Delaware to set up shop.

New York has the Belmont Stakes, which may be the only racing day that gets people out to the Elmont, New York facility. The state, because of the slots and soon video table games, still has a standardbred horse racing industry but the entire thoroughbred industry is in deep trouble. Dover Downs is adding tables in June. The standardbred racetracks in New York cannot add tables unless two different state legislatures in consecutive years give the go ahead for tables and the New York governor signs it into law.

Given just how dysfunctional the governor's office and the legislature have become in Albany, it may take years before that type of legislation is even considered by lawmakers. But the video tables are coming to the racinos.

It is a long and arduous process from a proposal to have slots in a racetrack until a state legislature passes a bill that gets a governor's signature or voters say yes in a referendum. In Delaware, Lockhart said the first effort to put slots in the state's three racetracks began in 1988 and the legislation authorizing slots at the tracks did not come to pass until 1994. Dover Downs’ casino opened on December 29, 1995.

The horse racing community is multifaceted according to Lockhart and to those in the New York thoroughbred industry who protested that New York Governor David Patterson and the state legislature still does not have a partner for a potential casino at Aqueduct.

"In Aqueduct," said Lockhart, "there are the horses and the blacksmiths, vets, and a lot goes into a race, a meet, not just the jockey. We don't have a barn area (at Dover Downs) but most of the people (who race) are from the area. It is a big agriculture business. (Dover Downs) employs 1,000 people and is the largest taxpayer in the city. Any place the slots go, it stimulates the agribusiness of horse racing.

"There is no question Dover Downs would have been out of business in 1995 (without the slots). Harrington Park canceled its meet in 1994 and was saved."

NASCAR first held an event in Dover in 1969.

The NASCAR events would still be in business with or without the horse racing/slots business. The Dover Downs story is not very much different than standardbred tracks in New York and in West Virginia and other states. Betting in Delaware is restricted to the three tracks, Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington.

There is some irony here for horsemen and the others connected to the racing business. State sponsored gambling, which includes lottery games, helped destroy the thoroughbred and standardbred business yet the racing industry is getting helped out by state sponsored "racinos" but as Rooney pointed out in 2007, "from a horseman's standpoint, it doesn't make any difference what the source of income is. If the source of income is going up in leaps and bounds, and the breeding programs are going up in leaps and bounds, it's revitalizing the breeding industry, the people in the farms, the people buying horses and racing horses."

That is the message New York's thoroughbred community is sending out.

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