Tracks Helping to Craft Ohio VLT Proposal

The Ohio racing industry is helping craft a plan for racetrack VLTs.

As Ohio racetracks are busy working on a plan for racetrack gaming, horsemen’s groups are lobbying the state legislature to get behind Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland’s proposal for video lottery terminals at tracks.

Strickland did an about-face June 19 and said he’d like to use VLTs at seven tracks to help balance a state budget that’s short about $3.2 billion for the coming biennium. During a press conference, he indicated the plan is more about avoiding budget cuts and tax hikes than propping up racing and breeding in the state.

The announcement came about three months after the Ohio State Racing Commission, made up of Strickland appointees, issued a detailed plan for racetrack VLTs. Commissioners at the time said the industry was dying in Ohio.

Racetrack officials met June 19 soon after Strickland’s press conference. Among those present was Beulah Park majority owner Charles Ruma.

“We have been meeting with the leadership of the House to craft a budget suitable to the governor’s plan,” Ruma said June 23. “There is a deadline of June 30 for the budget, so a lot has to be done in a short period of time. The plan needs to reflect the governor’s wishes and be workable from an industry standpoint.

“We hope to have this done by June 30.”

The OSRC proposal called for a state tax rate of 50%. The other 50% would go to the racing industry—racetracks, horsemen’s group, and breed development programs for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. The commission also set per-track licensing fees at $50 million each.

Those figures are expected to change as the plan is formulated.

“We are talking to the governor’s staff and the legislature about what the tax rate should be in order for us to adequately fund purses at racetracks,” Ruma said. “This is the governor’s proposal, not the racetracks’ proposal.”

Of racing’s share, the tracks, which must build and operate VLT casinos, would get the largest cut. The tracks—three Thoroughbred and four harness—are strategically located in or near the major metropolitan areas of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo.

Horsemen are involved in the process, said Dave Basler, executive director of the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

“Meetings are taking place today,” Basler said June 23. “We are urging our members to contact members of the (legislative) conference committee to urge them to support Gov. Strickland’s plan.”

Lisa Schwartz, who helped organize a horse industry rally at the state Capitol in May, is sending e-mails to horsemen asking them to contact legislators.

Both houses of the Ohio legislature must approve the governor’s plan, which comes less than four months before a proposed ballot measure for full casinos in the state’s largest cities. Strickland said he favors the racetrack VLT plan because machines could be operating quickly should the measure pass.

Given the failure of similar legislation in neighboring Kentucky June 22, the racing industry in the Bluegrass State is even more concerned about the Ohio developments. River Downs near Cincinnati shares the live racing market with Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky; Turfway officials said if River Downs installs VLTs, the competition for the gambling dollar could become unbearable even though the tracks don’t overlap their dates.

Despite average daily purses of $44,000, River Downs continues to attract a fair number of Kentucky-based horses in 2009. If purses at River Downs only doubled to $88,000—still low by Midwest standards—the track figures to draw even more of the modest stock that helps fill programs at Kentucky tracks.

Turfway president Bob Elliston said June 22 the track could close at the end of 2010 without revenue from alternative gaming.