Pennsy Governor Says Tracks Must Be Protected

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell isn't against having slot machines at locations other than racetracks, but he said if that's the case, it's imperative the tracks and the horse racing industry be protected.

Rendell, the keynote speaker Nov. 12 during the final session of the Racino 2003 conference at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia, said he hoped legislation to expanded gaming would be approved in the Keystone state by Christmas. Several bills have hit roadblocks in the legislative process.

Rendell, who during his campaign for governor said revenue from racetrack slots would help lower property taxes in Pennsylvania, said he would sign a bill that called for track-based slots only, or one that included non-track locations. He said if gaming devices are located at places other than tracks, there must be a protection mechanism in place.

"I have a great deal of affection for the four track owners that have kept racing alive in Pennsylvania," Rendell said. "The horse racing industry employs 30,000 to 35,000 people. We're on our way to having no horse racing, and very well may be on our way to becoming like New Jersey."

In the past several years, neighboring New Jersey has lost Garden State Park, while Atlantic City Race Course has whittled its schedule down to a handful of days. The racing schedules at Meadowlands and Monmouth Park are the subject of conflict each year because of differences between horsemen and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

Pennsylvania has four operating tracks: Penn National Race Course, Philadelphia Park, The Meadows, and the Downs at Pocono. Two more--Presque Isle Downs near Erie and Chester Downs in Chester--have been licensed. The state at one time had six operating tracks, but Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia and Commodore Downs near Erie folded.

"Those original four have hung in there with us for a long time," Rendell said. "I want to protect their interests and the fact they've invested in Pennsylvania. I would hate to see horse racing vanish from Pennsylvania."

Rendell didn't offer details but suggested some revenue from non-track locations could be funneled to the racing industry to level the playing field. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state's top two cities in terms of population, have been tabbed as locations for slots casinos.

Rendell, who traveled to Mountaineer after having attended a function in Pittsburgh, Pa., about an hour away, said he visited the restroom when he arrived at the Mountaineer racino and was recognized by two men, one of whom asked him when he wouldn't have to drive to West Virginia to play the slots.

"He said it was a shame to let all this money come down here," Rendell said. "Amen. He understands the issue."

Pennsylvanians gamble $4.7 billion a year outside of the state, Rendell said. About $3.2 billion ends up in casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas, with $2.88 billion of it in New Jersey, he said.

"It makes no sense for all that Pennsylvania wagering to take place, yet the state of Pennsylvania gets no benefits from it," Rendell said.

Mountaineer is owned by MTR Gaming, whose president, Edson "Ted" Arneault, is licensed to build Presque Isle Downs, a Thoroughbred track, near Erie. There has been talk the facility could end up in a new location, perhaps downtown, but in any event, Rendell believes it could be huge.

"Erie has the potential to be a fine little tourist town," Rendell said. "It needs one thing in its entertainment basket. What it needs is gaming."

Arneault has said the plans for the track would proceed even if alternative gaming weren't approved by the legislature. He said he hopes to create a synergy between Presque Isle Downs with Mountaineer because the two would be located only about 90 minutes apart.

On Nov. 11, Christopher Craig, chief counsel for Democrats in the Senate Appropriations Committee in Pennsylvania, said he believes the only way a gaming bill will pass in the state is if non-track locations are included in the mix. Craig said he sees only a 50-50 chance a bill will come up for a vote this year.

Rendell said he didn't know "what the bill would contain," but he believes it will be on the table before Christmas.

Racino 2003 was hosted by Global Gaming Business, an casino industry trade publication, and Jefferies and Co., a gaming industry consultant. It was held for the first time last year at Dover Downs, a racino in Delaware.