No matter how the racing industry tries to dress them up, “Instant Racing Machines” – aka “Historical Racing Machines” – at racetracks are, in both purpose and result, the exact same thing as slot machines at those tracks – there to subsidize (prop up) the actual horseracing taking place. These machines are directly responsible for horseracing returning to Virginia (Colonial Downs) in 2019 and keeping tracks alive in various other states, including Oregon.

A recent article in The Oregonian notes racing’s decline in that state, a decline that eventually led to the 2019 shuttering of Oregon’s sole major track, Portland Meadows. If horseracing is to survive (be resuscitated) in Oregon, subsidization is a must, an inconvenient truth for most American tracks. Handicapper/columnist Jonathan Stettin: “Racing is on life support. The decline in fan base has led to an environment where the tracks that survive and thrive are the ones with casinos, slots, other unconnected sources of revenue.” “Unconnected” being the operative word.

Now, the focus is on Grants Pass, a fairgrounds track being revamped by coffee mogul Travis Boersma. According to the piece, Boersma plans on spending some $25 million by the time he’s done. He’s doing this, of course, because of the promise of those “machines.” There’s oodles of cash to be made there – in the racing not so much: “Boersma doesn’t expect the actual horse races to make money. But he’s got a plan to cover any losses: The main attraction at the Flying Lark will be 250 betting terminals known as ‘historic horse racing’ machines.”

Here’s the thing, and with apologies and sympathies to the anti-gambling advocates, we at HW have no philosophical issue with gambling – including “historical racing” – just the kind that occurs on the backs of enslaved animals. So, I propose, why not “historical racing” in lieu of, rather than in addition to, live racing? In addition to means artificially propping up a business that has no business being in business. In lieu of would mean the end of the abuse and killing of horses, and as an added bonus, more cash going back to the state for education and the like. That’s a win-win for the two most innocent, vulnerable members of our society: children and animals.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, which has twice before decried the corporate welfare flowing to that state’s moribund horseracing industry, took aim again yesterday – this time focusing more on the cruelty and death. In the article, “Betting on horses’ lives,” journalist Sam Wood – with whom I spent a great deal of time – lays out a grim picture, opening with this:

“Racehorses are dying in staggering numbers at Pennsylvania tracks. Since 2010, state racing officials have tallied more than 1,400 thoroughbred deaths. Most of those horses were put down following catastrophic injuries that happened during a race or in training. Others dropped dead in their stalls.”

While (as usual with the media on this) the piece gives outsize attention to drugs, it also has moments of clarity. On the killing: “Even if a horse is drug-free, the physics of a 1,200-pound athlete rocketing down the track at 40 mph creates an extraordinary stress on the animal’s fragile legs.” And the cruelty: “The life of a horse falls into a downward spiral as it cycles through the trading that comes with claiming races.”

Of course, there’s plenty more on that obscene corporate welfare: “almost $3 billion in the last decade alone, more money than the state has given to any other industry.” In short, Wood writes, “The slots money keeps the industry afloat, paying for about 90% of all prizes and providing extra bonuses for Pennsylvania-bred horses.” Adds Russell Redding, PA’s agriculture secretary: “After a $3 billion investment, racing still isn’t stable. Why should we continue to invest?”

Of more import, the big picture: “That’s why some animals-right activists say the sport is irredeemable. These advocates simply want to end it, much as dog racing has disappeared in most of the United States. … ‘The killing is built into the system,’ said Patrick Battuello, the New York state-based operator of HorseRacingWrongs.org. Battuello is leading a push to end racing, pressuring legislatures across the country with letter-writing campaigns and protests outside tracks.”

(full article here)

Governor Wolf has twice called for bringing those massive subsidies home (to education). Please lend your support – and pressure the state’s other power brokers:

Governor Wolf: phone/contact/social media
Lt. Governor Fetterman: 717-787-3300; twitter; facebook
Senate Leaders
House Leaders

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.

Let your voices be heard. Tell PA legislators you support the governor’s proposal.
Senate Contacts
House Contacts
And, to reinforce his enlightened position, Governor Wolf’s contact

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.