Georgia Committee Studies Racetrack Benefits

A statewide referendum could be held for pari-mutuel racing.

The state of Georgia may be in for some changes in the coming months as horse enthusiasts try to convince lawmakers that building a racetrack is vital to both the struggling breeding industry and the economy as a whole.

On Nov. 18, a House Study Committee appointed by Rep. Glen Richardson, Georgia’s Speaker of the House, conducted a study on the horse industry through several testimonies at the Coverdell legislative office building in Atlanta. Among the speakers during the lengthy hearing were Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and a trustee of the American Horse Council; Mike Tanner, CEO of the United States Trotting Association; and veterinarian Gary Fisch, head of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association.

Waldrop spoke about the economic benefits of pari-mutuel wagering and horse racing in general.

“I answered the questions they had about how to start racing in Georgia,” Waldrop said. “There were concerns about the referendum effort they will have to go through, what the enabling legislation should look like, and the size of the track, location, etc.

“I thought it was well-received and the committee was very receptive to the ideas we had. Without a track and some sort of breeding incentive program, it’s doubtful they will ever build a large Thoroughbred breeding operation in Georgia. So I encouraged them to pursue the track and pari-mutuel wagering so they could build a larger, more significant agribusiness through Thoroughbred breeding.”

The next step after the hearing is for the state to go through a statewide constitutional referendum, which can often be a lengthy and complicated process. Waldrop said even if everything is passed as planned, the construction of a track in Georgia could be years in the making.

“It will probably be a year before it even goes on the ballot,” Waldrop said. “It’s still in the formative stages, and (people are) thinking about the right timing. I got very good feedback, and I think people are enthusiastic about the possibly. But they’ve got to convince people all over the state that a racetrack in Atlanta or in one of the urban centers would be to the benefit of everyone in Georgia. That’s not easily done.”

Ed Gadrix, who serves as legislative chairman for the Georgia Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, echoed Waldrop’s enthusiasm about the initial hearing.

“I thought it went extremely well, and so did (Richardson), the chairman of the committee of the legislature,” Gadrix said. “Whether that transitions into convincing a lot of the other legislators, I don’t know.”

Gadrix noted that when the possibility of building a track had come up in the past, it had usually been presented by Democrats, but the current committee was made up of mostly Republicans.

“So that’s a very positive sign,” he said. “I can’t predict what all Democrats in the Georgia legislature would do, but my gut feeling is that 90% would support horse racing, so if we’ve got good Republican support, I’m upbeat about it.”

Pari-mutuel legislation has been introduced in either or both houses of the Georgia legislature in years past but has been dismissed before even being put before voters. Gadrix believes the fact Georgia has garnered many new residents in recent years, coupled with having less opposition from groups that were previously against the matter and people recognizing the need to improve the struggling economy, could make things different this time around.

“I think people are looking at whatever we can do now to get jobs in the state and what we can do to raise revenue without raising taxes,” Gadrix said. “It’s a timely situation. (Getting a racetrack and pari-mutuel wagering) will still be an uphill battle, but I don’t think it’s the same battle as in years past.”

Gadrix said the House Study Committee is working on adjusting some of the wording in the legislation. Richardson in January is slated to introduce a bill calling for a statewide referendum, which would need to meet the approval of the majority of the House and Senate.