California Racetrack Slots Could Prove Tough Sell

Seeing a future in which purses are no longer golden, the Thoroughbred Owners of California will begin an uphill battle next year to bring slot machines to racetracks by 2005.

"It's a longshot, but this is something worth pursuing," TOC president John Van de Kamp said. "Other states have them, and we need them to stay competitive."

California has long been among the leaders in national purse structure, but it has lost ground to minor tracks in states such as Delaware, Iowa, New Mexico, and West Virginia, where purses have increased rapidly thanks to slot machines. With New York already having legislation in place, and Kentucky pushing for a bill, the focus on slots as a legislative priority was inevitable.

In California, slot machines are the provenance of Indian gaming tribes, which operate under compacts with the state. Ending the Indian monopoly would require a constitutional amendment. The TOC could qualify an initiative for the next statewide election in March 2004 through a signature-gathering campaign or by legislative approval.

Van de Kamp said horsemen would pursue the legislative course, whereby they will run smack into Indian gaming interests, the leading political campaign contributor in the state.

"We are in the exploratory stages of putting a program together," Van de Kamp said. "We have some strategies for dealing with the Indians."

One factor in racing's favor is that the state has an estimated budget shortfall of $21 billion for 2003. The legislature is in desperate need of new revenue sources, Van de Kamp said.

Craig Marler, a political consultant whose group is sponsoring a separate initiative that would end the Indian monopoly on gaming, said he is surprised horsemen would take their plan to the state legislature.

"I can't see that working," Marler said of tracks negotiating with legislators. "We want you to really piss off your number one campaign contributor by approving slot machines for racetracks. That's not likely."

He said his group's polling found that a state budget problem isn't enough to persuade voters either.

"Sixty-five to 70% would approve an expansion of gambling if revenues flow to local communities," Marler said. "If (revenues) go to Sacramento, approval drops to 10 to 15%. People think the money just goes into some big hole, and they probably are right to feel that way."

Marler, whose Fair Gaming Initiative would allow Las Vegas-style casino betting at all locations now approved for some form of gambling, such as racetracks and card clubs, expects it to be on the 2004 ballot.

"Indian gaming will eventually kill the racetracks and the card clubs," Marler predicted. "People who are gamblers are more inclined to go to a full casino."

Van de Kamp said the TOC would also press for an expansion of off-track wagering facilities in 2003. Currently, only tracks, county fairs, and Indian reservations can have simulcast outlets. Van de Kamp said many population centers throughout the state are left out as a result.