Horsemen Oppose Slots Bill; Track Calls It Greed

By Linda Dougherty and Tom LaMarra

The Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association is opposed to a racetrack gaming bill that would award 15% of gross revenue to purses and 1% to breed development. Meanwhile, an official at Philadelphia Park said he can't understand the horsemen's position.

The PA-THA, which represents horsemen at Philadelphia Park, would like 25% to 30% of gross revenue from slot machines. In addition, the organization said the legislation sponsored by Sen. Robert Tomlinson doesn't contain language to protect a live racing agreement now in place and doesn't give money for horsemen's health and pension programs.

"(Tomlinson's bill) shows a surprising lack of regard for the interest and concerns of our horsemen," said the letter, which was penned by directors of the PA-THA. The organization last fall sponsored a fund-raising dinner for Tomlinson's re-election campaign.

Mike Ballezzi, executive director of the PA-THA, said the bill is quite different from one floated several years ago. That measure contained a live racing agreement, which the PA-THA currently has with Philadelphia Park for pari-mutuel revenue.

"If we don't have a live racing agreement, and we have a stoppage here, they could continue to operate slot machines," Ballezzi said. "With a live racing agreement, we could got to the table and negotiate."

Ballezzi said the 15% in gross revenue for purses is a "grossly inadequate amount," as is the 1% for breed development.

Philadelphia Park officials don't agree with horsemen. Hal Handel, chief executive officer of track owner Greenwood Racing, said the percentage of gross slots revenue, along with pari-mutuel revenue, could equate to daily average purses of $425,000 at Philadelphia Park for 220 days of racing each year. That's more than $93 million annually.

"We support the bill, and it's clear under any reasonable construction of the bill that purses at Philadelphia Park from current pari-mutuel revenues and gaming would be the highest of any year-round, self-contained circuit in North America," Handel said.

Handel said the numbers measure up nationally for Pennsylvania horsemen, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred. Delaware and Ontario, Canada, return 10% of slots revenue to horsemen, while in West Virginia, the number is 15.5%.

"This makes the case they would have best deal in the United States for purses from gaming," Handel said. "Purses from gaming alone would approach $70 million per year as opposed to Delaware Park's $42 million."

Ballezzi said slots revenue when fully realized would add about $300,000 a day to the current $130,000 paid to purses through pari-mutuel revenue. The problem, he said, is that pari-mutuel handle continues to decline. (In January, it dropped 10%, he said.)

"We're looking at a decreasing base of handle," Ballezzi said. "Our only shot is with slots. That's where the majority of purse money will come from."

"Horsemen may be heading toward political disaster in the direction they are taking," Handel said. "I truly don't know what compelling case the PA-THA can make stating the Tomlinson bill is inadequate, and they're at serious risk of antagonizing a sponsor and advocate. It's very ironic if we got this close to having gaming and reviving the industry...and horsemen's greed killed the whole thing."

Ballezzi said horsemen are concerned the situation is all about slots, and not about protection of racing and breeding. "The whole attitude (of the racetrack) is no longer to protect the horse racing industry," he said.

Jim Cawley, spokesman for Tomlinson, said the bill is designed to help the racing industry. He said Tomlinson "has done what he has committed to do, both personally and publicly, to improve purses and to increase the income of horsemen. He wants to make purses competitive, if not better, than neighboring states, and he has met those obligations twice over."

Tomlinson has studied the issue and believes the bill is "well-rounded and a balanced approach," Cawley said.