VLT Legislation 'Hot Topic' at TTA Conference

Impending legislation to install video lottery terminals (VLTs) at pari-mutuel facilities in Texas drew a packed house at the Texas Thoroughbred Association's annual conference on Jan. 18. The conference, which culminated in the association's annual awards dinner, took place at the Hilton Austin Airport Hotel in Austin.

In a seminar on "Racinos, the Marriage of Racing and Casinos" it was stressed to horsemen that they need to present a united front and portray racing not as gambling, but as an agri-business to state legislators. The state's legislative session began its 140-day run Jan. 14. In a presentation headed by Dave Hooper, the executive director of the TTA, and Greg Avioli, deputy commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, it was noted that racing is a $35-billion industry that employs 500,000 people nationally. In Texas, a recent study indicated racing as a $6-billion industry that employs 52,000 people. "When you go before legislators, it must be stressed that what pays the bills is licensed pari-mutuel wagering," Avioli said.

"The TTA recognizes this is the most important piece of legislation this year. I can't say this any stronger," Hooper said. Texas faces competition from the west and east as New Mexico and Louisiana both have seen purses boom with the implementation of slot machines at their pari-mutuel facilities.

In a major first step, Hooper said, "The TTA board ratified an agreement with the Texas Quarter Horse Associaton that if there is legislation, there will be a 70-30 split (70% for Thoroughbreds, 30% for Quarter Horses). This is a milestone agreement made after hours of negotiations."

Mark Vane of Gardere Wynne Sewell, a lobbying group for the TTA, said, "There are many discussions going on, but there is no plan on paper -- just a lot of concepts. There are a lot of variables: locations available, how many machines, what games...what the pie is and how much everybody will get and how much the state will get. We're just not there yet."

It has been reported that Texas faces a $9.9 billion budgetary shortfall over the next two years. According to Vane, the legislative session ends June 2, but with the budget, legislators could meet in special session.

Hooper pointed out that purses at Sunland Park (in New Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas) total $230,000 a day -- more than Lone Star Park offered last year. He also said some breeders are sending mares to Louisiana to take advantage of the state-bred program there.

Corey Johnsen, of Magna Entertainment (owner of Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas), said, "We do some consulting for Sunland Park and they now have the capital to improve their facility and build a new customer service center. You need that capital to upgrade your facility -- to keep it modern and to keep pace with other forms of entertainment."

"There are ways to get it done and ways not to get it done," Avioli said, discussing strategy to the TTA. "The best way not to get it done is having various groups pitching different ideas. The tracks, horsemen, and breeders need a united front, a common plan. You need to work out your differences."

"In order for a state to compete, you are going to have to have purse levels that are competitive with other states," Avioli said. "Make the argument that it's an agri-business. Lotteries are necessary if you want to get this done. Work with an existing state lottery."

The Texas Lottery Commission is up for 'sunset' review in 2003. There is the opportunity for the VLT language to be tied to the existing bill, or it could be introduced as its own bill.