OTBO: Members, Tracks Must Step Up to the Plate

The Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners has issued a serious call to the state's racing and breeding industry as it pushes for alternative gaming: Nothing will be accomplished without a strong grass-roots campaign, and should gaming be approved, track operators must invest revenue to promote horse racing and revitalize aging facilities.

The OTBO met March 29 in Columbus to honor 2002 divisional champions, including horse of the year Harlan's Holiday, an Ohio-bred who finished second that same afternoon in the $6-million Dubai World Cup. During the business meeting, OTBO members said legislators are taking the lead on video lottery terminals, but that doesn't mean the industry can sit back and wait.

"It's going to be crucial we get out and get the message out," said Tom McCann, who bowed out as OTBO president after four years. "If there is a (referendum on gaming), an election would be very expensive. How as an industry do we support that? I think horsemen will be expected to come up with some kind of support for this."

OTBO members said some trainers at Thistledown near Cleveland expressed a willingness to chip in funds for newspaper ads and other promotional material. A pro-racing campaign could cost $5 million to $10 million, officials said, while racetrack VLTs could produce $1 billion every two years for the state budget.

Gov. Bob Taft is against expanded gambling, and some legislators have been reluctant to oppose his view for fear of repercussions. Dr. Paul Gutheil, a prominent Ohio Thoroughbred breeder and owner, blamed Taft for the current state affairs and said the industry would have been much better off had racetrack gaming been approved eight to 10 years ago.

Dennis Heebink, the new OTBO president, suggested racing and breeding interests become involved in local farm bureaus, which carry much political clout in Ohio. He also said the link to agriculture is a natural for horse racing.

OTBO members and others in the industry, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred, believe their message isn't being heard or isn't understood by legislators. The horse industry has handled political action in different ways in different states, and this winter was a case in point: In Maryland, horsemen and horse vans ventured to the state capital to make a case for racetrack gaming, while in Kentucky, owners and breeders were scarce during legislative hearings on the topic.

The new Ohio Horse Racing Council, of which the OTBO is a member, is made up of representatives of seven racetracks (four Thoroughbred and three Standardbred) and three horsemen's groups (two Thoroughbred and one Standardbred). The council is designed to reach consensus on industry issues, one of which is how racing will speak to legislators and the public on the issue of alternative gaming.

Not all OTBO members, including board member George Smith, believe VLTs are the cure-all for racing. They could, however, facilitate improvements that should be mandatory at racetracks, one of which--aging Beulah Park in Grove City--has décor that resembles "death row," said Smith, an owner, breeder, and longtime observer of the Ohio racing scene.

"You go to Beulah Park during the week, and it's sad to see a business dying," said OTBO vice president Rolf Obrecht, who races horses in California and Kentucky as well as Ohio.

Other OTBO members said track operators should be held accountable on how VLT revenue is spent should the machines go online. McCann said a current measure is basically a "lottery bill," which means horsemen of both breeds would have to make "side agreements" with tracks to ensure revenue is used to promote racing.

Currently, the plan is for horsemen, through purses, to get 10% of gaming proceeds. Ohio's overnight purses are among the lowest in the Midwest.

During the meeting, OTBO members touched on other issues, including a debate over quantity vs. quality. OTBO board member Tim Hamm, a trainer based at Thistledown, noted field size went up at the track last year, but handle dipped. There is a school of thought that bulky fields, even if the horses compete at a low level, generate more play than short fields of better-quality stock.

"Good horses are clearly going to draw more fire than a bunch of bums," Smith said.

Obrecht, who believes the turf course at River Downs is one of the most underutilized tools that could boost Ohio racing, said handle on an allowance race on the grass at River Downs might reach $160,000 to $170,000, while play on an everyday claimer on the dirt at the Cincinnati-area track might be $60,000.