Will Smoking Bans Burn Up Dollars for Racing?

The pari-mutuel industry is wrestling with another situation that has already seriously impacted business in some jurisdictions: Restrictions or bans on smoking in public places.

In Delaware, where three racetracks have video lottery terminals, a smoking ban that took effect late last year has caused a 25% decline in business. In New York, bettors are crossing county lines so they can smoke in off-track betting parlors. And Saratoga is prepared to make a major change for its summer meet.

Barry Schwartz, chairman of the New York Racing Association, said smoking would be banned in the grandstand and clubhouse at the Spa beginning this year. Earlier, NYRA had said smoking wouldn't be permitted in clubhouse boxes.

Schwartz and other racing officials were guest speakers during the March 13-14 joint meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, Harness Tracks of America, and Racetracks of Canada. Gambling and smoking have long gone hand-in-hand, but the industry is bracing for serious change.

"It's one decision I don't want to have to make," said Chris McErlean, general manager at Meadowlands, which currently has smoking and non-smoking sections. "I would expect in a couple of years, as a state-owned facility, we'll be told we'll be a non-smoking facility."

Bill Oberle, a member of the Delaware House of Representatives, is working to have the smoking ban altered to provide relief for bars and racinos. He said the measure is particularly important now that neighboring Maryland and Pennsylvania are considering racetrack gaming.

"These are precarious times," Oberle said. "We not only shot our selves in the foot, but we blew both feet off (with the smoking ban)."

Mea Knapp, president of Suffolk District Off-Track Betting Corp., said smoking is an "enormous" in New York. She said the state is looking at smoking restrictions, but in the meantime, many counties have enacted their own regulations.

Knapp cited an example where bettors from Nassau County, where they couldn't smoke, ventured across county lines to Suffolk County, where they could light up. At one parlor on the border, wagering jumped a staggering 137%, she said.

New York City Off-Track Betting is preparing to have smoke-free parlors by April 1, said Raymond Casey, president of New York City OTB. Much of the issue is tied to second-hand smoke and employees, he said.

"We believe there will be an impact on handle," Casey said. "Time will tell if it's a permanent impact."

Casey said New York City OTB has a television show available to eight million people, but even so, people may not want to sit at their homes to watch races and smoke.

"Betting is not just betting," Casey said. "It's a social event. (Bettors) don't want to sit alone in their living rooms and just win."