Hope for New Thoroughbred Track Seems Dim

by Dan Reynolds
Hope that passage of slot machine legislation in Pennsylvania would result in a new Thoroughbred racetrack near Pittsburgh seems futile. Negotiators with knowledge of the bill signed into law July 5 by Gov. Ed Rendell said a stand-alone slots parlor in downtown Pittsburgh is much more likely.

The possibility still exists that one of two proposed Standardbred tracks in either Beaver or Lawrence counties, to the north of Pittsburgh, will get a slots license. But developers who have been trying for more than a year to pull together a deal for Thoroughbred racing near Pittsburgh appear to have come up empty.

"You had people applying for Thoroughbred licenses a year and a half ago, and those that apply have to assume the business risk that the legislative process will dovetail with their business plans," said Christopher Craig, legal counsel to state Sen. Vincent Fumo, a key architect of the legislation.

Craig said in addition to the four existing tracks in Pennsylvania, slots licenses will go to Presque Isle Downs, a Thoroughbred track to be built on the shores of Lake Erie, and Chester Downs and Marina, a harness facility in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Craig said the remaining licenses would go to stand-alone slots parlors or resorts. He said two of those probably would go to Philadelphia, one to the Lehigh Valley--where a horsemen's group proposed a Thoroughbred track--and a fourth to the resort region of the Pocono Mountains. That leaves a fifth license for a stand-alone parlor in Pittsburgh.

Craig said in crafting the bill, negotiators tried to ensure the viability of The Meadows, a western Pennsylvania harness track owned by Magna Entertainment Corp.

"The Meadows has been a Standardbred track in the commonwealth for a long period of time," Craig said. "If you start putting venues in the Pittsburgh suburbs, you're going to create a huge economic pressure on The Meadows."

State Sen. Jay Costa from the suburban Pittsburgh said he favored a plan by Beaver County developer Chuck Betters and Churchill Downs Inc. to build a Thoroughbred track as part of a 653-acre development in the Hays section of the city, but couldn't get his fellow Democrats to agree.

"I recognize the impact a slots parlor could have on the city of Pittsburgh," Costa said. "I was looking for language that would allow for either but I lost that. My colleagues outvoted me."

Betters said he is going to wait for his own attorneys to interpret the bill before he comments, but he indicated he might try to raise a stink if a Thoroughbred track near Pittsburgh is out of the question. "I can tell you this, if the language is precluding it, I'm going to be very disturbed about it," Betters said.

Pittsburgh-based Oxford Development Inc. also had proposed a Thoroughbred track in Harrison Township, northeast of the city. Chief executive officer David Matter couldn't be reached for comment.