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.

Illinois horseracing has been in a precipitous decline (hanging by a thread, really) since the first riverboat casinos were christened in 1991. But the horsemen refuse to quietly fade away. Invoking their supposedly rich tradition and incessantly warning of economic havoc should they be allowed to fail, they demand, arrogantly, more. More, that is, than the 3% they’re legally allowed to skim from the casinos. What they want is Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) installed at the state’s five tracks so they can “properly compete” with the riverboats and neighboring racino states.

Without the racinos, many in Illinois predict catastrophe. Hawthorne president Tim Carey says (NBCChicago, 4/22/13) “it will be a slow, miserable death for racing.” And trainer Debbie Allison adds (WBEZ, 6/11/12), “If we don’t get the slots, we’re really just done.” Some, though, are less-than-sympathetic. Illinois politician Ed Schock (Chicago Tribune, 4/6/11): “If you can’t make it, then maybe it’s time to reconsider whether Illinois is a good place for horse racing. They’re already getting a subsidy. If people aren’t interested in going to horse racing in enough numbers, it would seem horse racing isn’t viable anymore.”


Once introduced, racino revenue soon makes up the bulk of purse money, replacing what should (handle and attendance). According to the Chicago Tribune, since Indiana went to slots in 2007, purse money has nearly tripled, while handle has declined. In short, where slots exist, the horsemen laugh all the way to the bank. Yonkers publicity director Frank Drucker (Sun-Times, 2/26/11): “The slots are the engine that drives the operation. We’d be lying if we said racing had a fan base close to what it did in its heydey.” Forced to rely on product alone – like almost every other American business – much of racing would not survive. Even in venerable NY, slots prop the industry.

Once given, the subsidy morphs to entitlement, and attempts to wean are met with indignation from the horse people (“How dare you put our people out of work!”). It – racetracks with VLTs – becomes the new normal. Illinois State Rep. Lou Lang, a slots advocate, says that “the horse-racing industry is dying on the vine.” But “dying on the vine” implies a premature end, mostly due to lack of support. This does not describe horseracing. One, racing people have been earning off the backs of enslaved horses for well over a century. And two, it is the buying public that is not adequately supporting the industry. The market has spoken.

The New York Racing Association reports a half-year (ending June ’13) operating loss from racing operations of $10.3 million. But when the Resorts World Casino (at Aqueduct) slots money is factored in, that loss magically becomes an $8.2 million gain. With attendance and handle trending in the wrong direction (down 18% and 5% respectively from the same period last year), the state’s big three (Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct) are growing more dependent on racino cash with each passing meet, a condition their harness counterparts know all too well. The following, posted last year, offers more insight into NY’s horseracing subsidy…

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Racinos, horseracing tracks with Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs), are New York’s answer to stabilizing (saving) a gravely ill industry, especially at the harness level. Currently, 9 of the 11 NY racetracks house VLTs: Saratoga (Harness), Finger Lakes, Buffalo, Monticello, Batavia, Tioga, Vernon, Yonkers, and Aqueduct. Each track is entitled to a 26-32% cut of net revenue, plus 8-10% for marketing, plus up to 4% for “capital improvements.” Since the program began in 2004, this translates to $1.023 billion for purses and $571 million for marketing and infrastructure. But has this government largess helped racing right its ship?

In July 2012, the NYS Comptroller’s office filed this report. It concludes:

“We found that, despite the influx of VLT monies since calendar year 2004, handle at their associated racetracks has continued to decrease. In fact, total handle on live racing in New York decreased from $53 million in 2004 to $46 million in 2010, a decrease of 13 percent. …we are unable to determine whether the millions of dollars that pay for increased purses, rather than for education, are having their intended effect.”

In response to the audit, Lottery Director Gordon Medenica:

“Anecdotally, we know from all our facility operators that there is almost no overlap or synergy between the casino patrons and the horse racing patrons at the facilities. Many of the facilities lose money on their horse racing operations…but consider it simply a cost of doing business for having the VLT license and operating the gaming facility.

In the past, one could characterize the facilities as horse racetracks with gaming machines, but now it is much more accurate to describe them as casinos (with a legally required track on the property). …As mentioned earlier, we share the Comptroller’s concern about the effectiveness of the horse racing subsidies generated by the Video Lottery program.”

(In Ontario, which ended its “Slots at Racetracks Program” earlier this year, racing was receiving 20% of slots revenue – $345 million in 2011, over $4 billion in just 15 years. In all, this nonracing booty eventually accounted for 63.6% of purses, with some of Ontario’s 17 tracks funding over 90% of their prize money with slots cash. Now, mostly being forced to subsist on actual product, the future of Ontario racing remains very much in doubt.)

Horseracing, of course, defends the VLT program as a successful “partnership” (for them, “subsidy” is a four-letter word) that has benefited taxpayers and industry alike. Inconveniently for the horse people, however, it is virtually certain that VLTs would succeed in a host of other public places – bars, restaurants, truck stops, etc. – and that these venues would not require anything close to the 40% or so currently gifted to racing. In other words, millions more could (should) be flowing to education.

Across the nation, states are growing weary of propping up “The Sport of Kings” by turning it into a collective casino “with a legally required track on the property.” Enough already. Kill the subsidy; let the market take its course.