Bay State Tracks, Horsemen Await Bill's Fate

by Jeff Gutridge

The future of horse racing in Massachusetts is brighter after the State House of Representatives on Monday approved a bill that extends simulcasting rights to racetracks and earmarks additional revenue for purses.

The bill is headed to the Massachusetts Senate, which could act on it as early as Thursday. It then would go to the desk of acting Gov. Jane Swift.

Without a new law or another extension of the current law, simulcasting will end in Massachusetts June 30. The tracks have been offering simulcasting as regulated in a statue that expired a year and a half ago. Since then, two extensions have been passed that have allowed simulcasting. Without the extensions, it is unlikely tracks such as Suffolk Downs could have remained open.

The comprehensive bill determines the percentages Greyhound tracks and a Standardbred track will pay for the right to simulcast Thoroughbred racing. It also legalizes telephone account wagering, dedicates uncashed ticket revenue -- approximately $500,000 a year at Suffolk Downs -- to purses, establishes that horsemen get between 4% and 7.5% of a track's simulcasting handle, and allows for the study of off-track betting in Massachusetts.

The bill also includes a "purse pool" provision that was removed by the House Ways and Means Committee June 21. The House reinstated the purse pool, which could generate an additional $2 million to $3 million in revenue for purses to be shared by the horse and dog tracks.

The purse pool money will come from the state's general fund, which annually receives approximately $10 million in taxes from the state's tracks.

Both horsemen and track officials were pleased with the language in the House bill. Trainer Jeff Hooper, a member of the legislative committee of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said the legislation could be a "positive bill" for Massachusetts racing.

The New England HBPA had hoped to see specific language to govern simulcasting revenue. It sought to increase the percentage of revenue that would go from simulcasting to live purses from the current 5.3% to 5.5% for the rest of 2001 and 2002; to 6.5% in 2003; and to 7.5% in 2004.

Area horsemen argue that the national average is 6.7%. Local track officials, like Suffolk Downs chief executive officer Robert O'Malley, believe the tracks should determine their own percentage, but could "live with" the 4% to 7.5% range in the bill.

"You never know what simulcasting signals are going to cost you," O'Malley said. "We deserve to have more control over of business than that."

But like Hooper, O'Malley was satisfied with the House version of the bill.

"We're pleased to be able to do something about purses," O'Malley said. "We're happy with this version. We hope the Senate will act quickly."

The only roadblock for the bill could come from activists who have attempted to ban Greyhound racing. They're angry that a provision to divert $3 million in "sin taxes" back to Wonderland Dog Track for capital improvements was left in the legislation, and because their request to cancel dog racing on days when it's hotter than 85 degrees was removed from the bill.

A provision to tie together the state lottery and the tracks through some form of scratch ticket based on the outcome of a race also was removed from the bill.