Time for Action in Pennsylvania

Harness racing has always been a reactive industry, maybe it’s time for it to take some initiative

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

There is panic in Pennsylvania and who is causing it? Governor Tom Wolf. In his proposed FY 2021 budget, Wolf is calling for $204 million to be taken from horse racing tracks and used to help offset the high cost of attending college and university in the Keystone State.

What exactly does this mean and how exactly does this work. In PA, every race track has a casino. Patrons come in and they have choices. They can play the casino games or they can bet on the horses. For every dollar that is bet at the casino, a small portion of it goes to horse racing. The horse racing tracks use those monies to increase purses so those that make their living in horse racing can make their living in horse racing.

The figure comes out to about $250 million per year and those monies help everybody involved in the sport. Drivers make more, as do trainers, breeders, farmers and so on down the road. Economists state that horse racing in PA employs 20,000 people and generates $1.6 billion to the state’s economy.

The harness racing is pretty good in Pennsylvania. The Meadows, located on the Western side of the state races all year and daily purses are solid. The Friday, March 6 card features 13 races and $138,800 in total purses.  The two other tracks—Harrah’s in Chester and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre race from roughly February or March to November or December; so for the most part, if you wish to wager and follow harness racing in the Commonwealth, you can do just about every day.

Nobody wants to see that money disappear and it must be noted that all the casinos were built at horse racing facilities. If not for racetracks would the racino/casino explosion have taken place?

Of course, we all know what happens. $250 million is a lot of money and the politicians know it. In some ways they probably can’t believe that there is $250 million “extra” to give back to horse racing, so they now believe that it may be too much; that horse racing is just sitting back and waiting for that money and frankly, not doing enough to earn it.

Next to Pennsylvania is New Jersey and for years, the horse racing tracks wanted to build casinos so they, like the other states, could reap the benefits. But New Jersey is the home of Atlantic City and the politicians always voted against it. We know why. The Atlantic City lobby was begging, pressuring and most importantly donating campaign monies to candidates who, in turn, would vote no.

And for years, the politicians who were opposed to casinos at the Meadowlands got their way. A few years ago, they asked the citizens of New Jersey to vote and 84 percent of them voted against a Meadowlands/North Jersey casino.

Things were looking bleak in the Garden State until the end of 2018 when the new governor and the state legislature agreed to provide a $20 million subsidy to horse and harness racing. Of the $20 million, $10 million went to Monmouth, $6 million to the Meadowlands, $1.6 million to Freehold with the remaining $2.4 million going to breeding, sire states and other areas to help foster the growth of horse racing.

All three tracks did well in 2019 and as a result, there are more racing dates on this year’s calendar, which includes 19 thoroughbred dates at the Meadowlands.

Let’s think about this. Pennsylvania, buoyed by casinos at its racetracks, gets roughly $250 million for horse racing, while New Jersey, with no racetrack casinos relies on a $20 million state subsidy. Is there a happy medium here?

There is a big difference here. In New Jersey, the taxpayers are subsidizing horse racing as that $20 million check is written by the state government. Taxpayers may bemoan that, but they are getting a decent ROI on it. Those that make their living in horse racing in New Jersey are paying taxes, buying supplies and supporting farms in the Garden State. It’s the old spend money to make money adage.

In Pennsylvania, the taxpayers are not writing a check. What they do is spend their money at the casino and for every $100 dollar they lose, the sport of horse racing gets a percentage of that. So, for Governor Wolf to come out and say that he wants to take $204 million away from horse racing to give to college students—well, that may not be his money to transfer over.

Horse racing needs to learn to be self-sustaining. They feel entitled and as a result, very little marketing is done to get people interested in horse and harness racing. I’m sure there is a compromise and to be honest, the chance of Wolf’s idea becoming state law is minuscule at best. That said, maybe the horse racing industry should agree to give some of that $250 million to help offset the skyrocketing cost of attending college.

What if the horse racing industry agreed to give $60 million or $75 million of its $250 million to Wolf’s college idea? Is that a good thing? Would the governor be willing to accept this and sign a long-term agreement in return for not making this threat again?

Wolf made his statement. Now it’s time for the horse racing industry to do more than protest, panic and act scared. It’s time for them to look themselves in the mirror, appreciate what they’ve been given and make a counterproposal in the event that a state legislator does bring this bill onto the assembly floor.

All good things come to an end and one of these days, casino subsidies for harness racing will end.

Will the industry be prepared for it?




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