Once again, Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania has submitted a budget that would strip some $200 million in annual corporate welfare from that state’s horseracing industry and redirect it where it belongs: education. (Last year, the governor proposed the same, but then covid happened.) The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Wood took dead aim at the issue this week (full article). Here are some highlights:

“Horse racing in the state is propped up by about $230 million a year from a tax on casino slot machine revenues. Since the financing began in 2004, Pennsylvania horsemen have collected about $3 billion.

“In the state, about 95% of the purse money is derived from slot machines. The rest [a relative pittance] comes from bets at the tracks.

“In Pennsylvania, the audience for racing has dwindled to the point where it’s no longer included in the gaming commission’s annual report. In 2018, the average Pennsylvania race drew only about 650 people.”

But my favorite passage came after an industry stakeholder’s claim that Wolf’s proposal “would absolutely destroy the horse racing industry and the more than 20,000 jobs that are associated with it.” Ah yes, the jobs – about the only argument left for this sad, desperate industry. Of course, as I’ve said often these jobs numbers are so wildly inconsistent that I’m convinced they’re pulled out of thin air. Anyhow, here is what Mr. Wood wrote in response:

“Racing directly supports about 7,400 jobs, according to a 2018 report paid for by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. That report said about 8,000 more jobs are affected by the racing industry. That’s among a Pennsylvania workforce of about six million.” In other words, racing-related jobs are statistically insignificant. Even if we were to give them the supposed jobs “affected by racing,” we’re talking about .2% of the workforce. Not two percent. Point two percent.

So what if the doomsayers prove prophetic and PA Racing folds without its lifeline? Well, those six tracks are sitting on (obviously) valuable real estate, real estate that can and will be redeveloped, creating new (better) jobs and increased tax revenues – not to mention, vastly improved landscapes. Which brings to mind another of this industry’s risible defenses, to wit: Horseracing, as the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition puts it, “preserves hundreds of thousands of acres of open space.” Yes, save those ugly, dirty, seedy racetracks in the name of “open spaces.” As I said, sad and desperate.

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The thing about the hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare flowing to horseracing every year is this: the industry doesn’t even try to hide it. Poll a racing exec in any of the subsidy states – which is to say, most of the racing states – and he’ll tell you directly: if we don’t get it, we don’t survive.

After winning a $20 million annual largess from the state last year, New Jersey horsemen are begging for more. A state assembly bill introduced earlier this month aims to allow New Jersey’s three racetracks to offer live poker games to help pad the purses. Enough already, New Jersey. If this patently nonessential business cannot subsist on its product alone (and it can’t), time to cut it loose. There will be more funds available for education, but of more import (at least to us here), no more horses will be made to suffer and die.

As we have repeatedly pointed out, the bulk of U.S. Racing only still exists because of corporate welfare; if this slots spigot were shut off, over half the tracks in this country would be shuttered, virtually overnight. In short, the masses have spoken, preferring other forms of gambling and entertainment, but state legislatures continue to send lifeboats to Racing. This, of course, leads to a triple wrong: Using taxpayer money to prop up a patently nonessential industry, that abuses and kills animals, at the expense of schoolchildren (for whom, ostensibly, state-sanctioned gambling is intended).

Two recent articles underscore horseracing’s tenuous state and provide us advocates hope. From the AP: “New Mexico’s horse tracks and their associated casinos have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. After a brief hiatus, races resumed at Ruidoso Downs in May but without spectators and the casinos remain closed under a public health order…. Without the slot machines and tables, some track owners have suggested losses per day could reach in to the tens of thousands of dollars.

From Play Pennsylvania: “Racing purses are, by law, largely paid for via about a 10% cut of retail casino slot profits. That means the short-term financial picture for racing is not entirely clear as casinos are opening with capacity restrictions, meaning less revenue…. The long-term finances for the industry are also murky due to an attempted funds diversion by Gov. Tom Wolf earlier in the year. … Wolf’s [for now] shelved plan was meant to divert $204 million annually from the support of racing purses and breeding programs to a proposed scholarship program for PA students….”

Hope, indeed.

For the second time in two years, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board blasted the commonwealth for propping up its horseracing industry (to the tune of some $3 billion since 2004). This time, however, the paper also mentioned ever-increasing outrage over dead racehorses, something, I say with pride, we’ve had much to do with. This, coming as it does from Pennsylvania’s largest newspaper, and the governor’s recent proposal to redirect those subsidies toward education are clear indications that times are changing – and fast. With the pressure ratcheting-up, can action – and the sure demise of Pennsylvania horseracing – be far behind?

Here are excerpts (full editorial here).

“For 16 years, Pennsylvania has been saddled with an obligation to prop up a flailing horse race industry. Since [2004], the industry has gotten close to $3 billion dollars from … slot machines. That’s a lot of money — about $240 million per year — that should have by now stabilized and improved the sector. It hasn’t. [A]lmost every data point connected to the performance of Pennsylvania racing shows a decline. The number of wagers, the number of races, the number of horses, the purses paid, and the attendance at tracks: all in decline, a trend going back years.

“Layer those problems on top of growing outcry over the treatment and deaths of racehorses around the country. Starting in 2018, for example, a rash of horse deaths at Santa Anita Park in California led one industry commenter to note, ‘Poorly bred, overraced, exhausted horses being whipped toward the finish line is not a sport; it’s an exercise in sadistic exploitation.’

“A report last year by PennLive/Patriot-News revealed that 87 horses died in Pennsylvania in 2018 alone [it’s actually more; see my report]. [W]e have to ask, not for the first time: Why are we subsidizing this?

“Those supporting the industry claim that the money supports agricultural jobs which boosts the state economy, and by funding bigger purses, more people will bet. The reality doesn’t back that up. With so many critical and human problems this state faces, the unquestioning propping up of an industry that has shown no promise of improving is outrageous. That’s why Gov. Wolf gets credit for his latest proposal to use about $200 million of that annual money to fund scholarships for Pennsylvania students to attend Pennsylvania colleges. It’s about time.”

Indeed it is.

Alas, a tragic truth: Hearts and minds alone will not win this fight. As long as Horseracing continues to enjoy obscene amounts of corporate welfare – a.k.a. subsidies – it will continue to exist, no matter how effective we are in shifting public opinion or in reducing the demand for the racing product. Our big challenge on this front, however, is that most people, including the politicians ultimately responsible for them, are utterly unaware of the subsidies and how they work. But that’s beginning to change, as evidenced by Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf’s recent proposal to reclaim some $200 million from Racing and redirect it where it was supposed to go in the first place – education.

The industry, of course, is terrified that this could become a trend; if it does, the bulk of U.S. Racing will fail, practically overnight. When forced to defend, the industry’s argument goes like this: With lotteries, casinos, and now “all-sports betting,” the gambling landscape has dramatically changed. Horseracing, they say, has (unfairly) been put at a competitive disadvantage and needs help leveling the field. Next comes talk of “tradition” and economic impact – “thousands of jobs,” ancillary industries like feed, hay, etc. Never mind that animal racing had a virtual monopoly on legal gambling for decades; never mind that their numbers are mostly pulled out of thin air. This pitch has heretofore been effective, for no politician wants to be on the wrong side of jobs.

Anyhow, rarely do we get honesty on this (which is to be fully expected as this industry’s entire business model is based on a lie: horseracing as sport). So imagine my surprise when HorseRaceInsider – “The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing” – admitted that this subsidy thing of theirs, once exposed, is unsustainable, a sure loser if tried in the court of public opinion. Recently, HorseRaceInsider’s Tom Jicha wrote:

“An existential threat to racing, more ominous than a distressing spate of horse deaths, reared its head again this week. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, in his annual budget message, asked his state’s lawmakers to redirect more than $200 million of casino proceeds, which currently goes to his state’s horse racing and breeding program, to a new college scholarship fund. If the governor gets his way, purses at the state’s horse tracks would decrease by 90%. Pennsylvania HBPA executive director Todd Mostoller was succinct in what this would mean. ‘We would be out of business.’

“Even if [the proposal fails], this is not an idea that is going to go away. [T]he governor is playing a strong hand likely to be enthusiastically received by the masses. There aren’t many politicians who wouldn’t want to go to their electorate on a platform that if we take away money from horse racing purses…we can underwrite the higher education of 25,000 of our children.”

Jicha went on to cite similar dangers lurking in West Virginia (incessant budget problems) and New York (pension issues; “Gov. Cuomo’s disdain for racing”). But then the money quote, coming, I remind, from a prominent racing writer: “To be honest, I’m not sure there is an effective argument against the case Gov. Wolf is making.”

No there isn’t, Mr. Jicha. Preserving a declining industry, as measured by demand (handle, attendance), that abuses and kills sentient beings as a matter of course, at the expense of schoolchildren (or any student) is eminently untenable. In other words, the clock is ticking, and you know it.