Although I’d rather not keep hammering an issue that the average person cares (and knows) little about, the racino question is simply too important to ignore. Here is the indisputable fact: While some races (TC, BC) and some meets (Saratgoa) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, much of the garden-variety horseracing in the U.S. would have vanished by now if not for state subsidies in the form of slot-machine revenue. Corporate welfare. And for the states without it, desperation is the order of the day. Witness Texas, our second largest state and once a racing leader, but now, one teetering on the precipice.

For years, Texas horsemen have been lobbying hard for “expanded gaming” – installation of slots at their tracks. They need slots because without them, they can’t compete. People want casino gaming; the $2 bet is very 20th Century. The numbers, according to a recent Dallas Morning News article, are grim: Attendance at Texas tracks is less than half of what it was in 2000; in that same time span, total wagering in Texas and on Texas races has plummeted from $908 million to $361 million. In short, it’s dying, a reality that Ray Paulick calls “sad.” Sad? Mr. Paulick remains delusional.

What is sad, is that states (NY, OH, PA, et al.) continue to succumb to racing’s pity plea – save us, for jobs, for nostalgia. This is the tack successfully used in neighboring Oklahoma, with predictable results. Remington Park, says President Scott Wells, “had the padlock ready to put on the door” before it was allowed to install VLTs. Now, the horse people – who are legally entitled to a share of the booty, booty that would otherwise be flowing to state coffers (for education) – laugh all the way to the bank: Bolstered by 750 machines, Remington purses average roughly $260,000 per day, or about double that of Lone Star in Texas. And all the while, handle and attendance continue to decline.

The Dallas Morning News sums it thus: “It’s becoming more and more evident that traditional horse racing, on its own, can’t compete in a world with so many other entertainment and gambling choices. Some wonder how much longer the sport — and industry — will last, especially if it doesn’t get help from the Legislature.” To which, I reply:

Texas, let the market be what it will be. And if racing can no longer subsist on its own, let it die, like so many other antiquated industries before it. Not only is that our American way, but when racing’s final history is written, you, Texas, will be on the right side of it.

Would that scenes like this at Lone Star Park are no more…
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Just to be clear, again, funneling a portion of racino slots money into purses and breeding is corporate welfare. Sure, the horse people call it a “state-business partnership.” But as the saying goes, it is what it is, and here is what it is: Expanded gaming is all the rage for cash-strapped states. Enter the horsemen. They say, since track owners already have the facilities for gambling, give them the Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) licenses. But when doing so, make sure you legally bind them to continue live racing and, as importantly, demand they send some of the loot our way.

As ThistleDown prepares for its second season with VLT revenue, excitement – for the horsemen, that is – pervades. And why not? As a recent press release notes, the more than 1,000 VLTs added last April “breathed new life into the sport of kings in Northeast Ohio.” “New life,” here, translates to a 28% increase in purses, with the Ohio Derby (July 19th) pot triple what it was last year. Yes, times are good, but not because of a successful product. If forced to rely on handle and attendance alone, much of horseracing, especially at the harness level, would be dead or dying by now. Racinos are welfare. Period.

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Sunday’s Akron Beacon Journal tells an all-too-familiar tale (New York, West Virginia, Indiana, etc.) of a “drying up” racing industry being propped by the corporate welfare that is euphemistically referred to as a “state-business partnership.” It goes something like this: Horseracing, especially harness and claiming, is finding it increasingly hard to compete with full-service casinos and state lotteries. But instead of quietly fading away like so many other industries that time passed by, racing demands, arrogantly, to be saved.

In 2011, Ohio racing found itself on the brink. Enter Video Lottery Terminals, and the birth of Ohio “racinos.” From the article: “Thanks to big dollars being pumped into the sport by slots-like video lottery terminals (VLTs) at the state’s horse tracks, the Ohio horse racing industry is rebounding after at least a decade on the wane.” The “big dollars,” a 9%-11% cut of VLT operations, are funneled directly to race purses. So purses that were once $2,000-$5,000 are now $5,000-$25,000. People come to play slots and – unwittingly, for the most part – line horsemen’s pockets. Nice deal if you can get it.

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Of course, anytime subsidies are questioned, racing indignantly reminds that the industry is more than breeders, owners, and trainers. Kill the subsidies, so their argument goes, kill a host of workingman jobs – farriers, groomers, walkers, farmers, tack dealers, etc. Even the white-collars would suffer. One veterinarian from the article, Dr. Michael Latessa, happily reports that the new economic model is a boon to his profession: “As far as our business, we’ll be busier as vets obviously because there will be more horses coming in.” More racing: more prescriptions, more injections, more injured bodies, more euthanasias. Hard to imagine anyone going to vet school for that.

Yes, jobs are at stake, but let’s not pretend that the horsemen care about anyone’s economic future but their own. The larger point, however, is that industries come and go; if your product is no longer viable, find a new product, a new line of work. It’s not within government’s charter to revive the obsolete. In fact, it’s patently unfair. Grant the casino licenses, but without the mandated percentages to those who have done nothing to earn them. This would leave more for education, the intended beneficiary of state-sanctioned gambling. Let racing, like the vast majority of American businesses, fend for itself.

This site is occasionally rebuked – by the racers, of course – for almost exclusively focusing on “bad news.” To which, I ask, have they read our “about” statement? In any event, I am not at all interested in hearing about kind, hard-working, or reform-minded horsemen. If they’re in racing, they’re exploiting animals for personal gain. Period.

Today, though, I do present some happier tidings – according to me, of course. From the Paulick Report (11/20/13): “As it engages ongoing competitive challenges that include gaming-enhanced purses at other racetracks and continued growth of casino competition in its home region, Churchill Downs Racetrack (‘CDRT’) has announced a reduction in purses that will affect four races scheduled during the eight days remaining in the 25-day Fall Meet that continues through Saturday, Nov. 30.”

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Two stakes races will have reduced purses, and two other races will be eliminated entirely. Now, is this a case of one state’s loss is another’s gain? Perhaps. But if the Indiana horse people are doing well, it is only through state largess – the racino structure funnels millions of unearned, non-racing, life-sustaining dollars into the hands of happy horsemen. This, the Kentucky people say, is exactly what we need. Irony, yet again: Currently, Indiana racing has an unfair advantage, but if Kentucky succeeds in securing its own subsidies, it too would have an unfair advantage – over other entertainment venues. For now, though, I choose to file less money, less racing at Churchill Downs in the “good news” department.