Instant Racing Called Quick Fix for Ohio

A study released by Ohio State Racing Commission offers a short-term action plan and a long-term strategy for the struggling horseracing industry in the Buckeye State, but one racetrack official said the quickest fix lies with the pen of Gov. Ted Strickland.

The study, prepared by the Colorado-based Innovation Group on behalf of the OSRC, not surprisingly calls alternative forms of gaming “the most popular, less risky, and highest-impact approach” to improve the economics of racing and breeding in Ohio. Beulah Park owner Charles Ruma doesn’t disagree, but believes something must be done soon to at least repair the damage.

Ruma was one of several individuals who addressed the OSRC Nov. 21 when the report was presented. It was the same day the racing commission approved a reduction of more than 160 days of Thoroughbred racing at Beulah Park and River Downs in 2009 because of what the tracks call declines in pari-mutuel revenue and conflict with horsemen over advance deposit wagering models.

“Right now, if you want to fix racing immediately, get the governor to sign the Instant Racing bill,” Ruma told the racing commission. “It already passed the Senate, and the Speaker of the House has said he’ll put it up for a vote. If the governor signs it, we’ve got a fix, and (Beulah Park and River Downs) will be back to a full racing schedule.”

The legislation to authorize Instant Racing—the machines are pari-mutuel in nature because they use recycled races but resemble video slot machines—hasn’t been addressed since the 2007 Senate vote because Strickland, a Democrat, said he would veto it. Under the bill, the seven tracks in Ohio would be able to operate the machines, which are credited with providing purse increases at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

Efforts to amend the state constitution to authorize casino-style gambling in Ohio have failed repeatedly, including this year, when a referendum for a private casino was defeated. When Strickland earlier this year authorized the Ohio Lottery to operate Keno games around the state, racing industry officials hoped it would lead to track-based video lottery terminals.

“In this state, we have tried to amend the constitution, and that has failed,” Ruma said. “The simple and best way is to have the Lottery own all the equipment and proceeds (from video gambling), and pay the tracks a commission.”

The study by The Innovation Group makes the following short-term recommendations: allow all racetracks to offer simulcasts full-time; revise the law that has greatly limited the opening of off-track betting parlors in the state; pass ADW legislation that would “put the industry in the best position to benefit” from ADW; allow tracks to take tax credits against pari-mutuel wagering for approved marketing and promotional expenditures; and divert funds that go to a program for senior citizens back to horse racing.

The long-term strategy contained in the report is simply alternative forms of gaming. “With regard to racetrack casinos, The Innovation Group believes a tax rate structure that balances the needs of government with the need to maintain a healthy gaming and racing industry will maximize the benefits of gaming for Ohio,” the report states.

Pari-mutuel handle in Ohio is down 12% again this year, and purses are the lowest in the region. This year through Nov. 24, purses at Beulah Park have averaged $38,765. River Downs, usually well-supported by Kentucky-based horses seeking easy spots, offered $53,627 a day in purses for 102 days, while Thistledown purses averaged $67,481 per day for 121 days, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems.

With the exception of Northfield Park, the state’s harness tracks are trimming live racing dates again for 2009.

“Ohio has the most talented people you could ever want to meet,” OSRC chairman Willie Koester said after the study was presented. “Ohio has done nothing wrong; the other states have done something right. What we’re doing is selling cars without air conditioning. No one buys them anymore.”

As of Nov. 25, there was no indication of a resolution to the approved 2009 schedule that has Beulah Park shutting down in the winter and River Downs offering no Thoroughbred racing in the spring and summer. But no one has said the dates approved Nov. 21 are final.

The situation has ramifications beyond pari-mutuel handle. There are roughly 1,000 horses stabled at Beulah Park, which traditionally races from October through early May. Many of them may have nowhere to go, because barn areas at nearby tracks are full, and other tracks are closed for the winter.

Beulah Park has said the barn area will shut down at the end of December if there is no winter racing. One Ohio owner suggested if horses in fact have no place to go, the situation could bring unwanted publicity to Ohio given the recent national push by the industry to ensure the health and safety of Thoroughbreds.

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