Alternative Gaming Becomes Issue in Ohio

The Ohio Lottery Commission's need for revenue to fund education has generated serious talk about video lottery terminals at the state's seven commercial racetracks. Legislators have floated the idea, and racing industry officials are attempting to find common ground.

A council made up of the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners, and the Ohio Harness Horsemen's Association met Feb. 13 to work toward "equitable legislation" for VLTs. OTBO president Tom McCann said horsemen and breeders agreed "the industry here is in fairly dire straits because of competition" from neighboring states.

"We got a feel for what is known to be happening, and what is estimated to happen," McCann said of the meeting. "We're trying to understand the process, and what's liable to be some of the outcomes. One of the strongest things that came out of the meeting was to try and ensure that live racing is protected."

With seven tracks, Ohio offers about 1,200 live racing days a year. Thoroughbred tracks, with more than 400 dates, failed to strike a deal to consolidate schedules and eliminate overlaps in part because of mandates in Ohio law.

The racetracks -- three Thoroughbred and four harness -- didn't participate in the Feb. 13 meeting, but they're hardly opposed to alternative forms of gaming.

"We're for it," River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian said. "There has been a lot of talk, but there's no legislation. We're just here to answer any questions. You don't tell the legislature what it should or shouldn't do."

Hanessian said the issue hasn't reached the point where racetracks and horsemen have sat down to discuss revenue splits. For any legislation to have a chance at passage, all parties must be in agreement, he said.

There has been some animosity over the years between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries, though they did agree on legislation that authorized full-card simulcasting in 1996. The harness lobby is quite powerful in Ohio, which has more than 60 county-fair meets that offer limited pari-mutuel wagering.

The OTBO is compiling the results of a survey in which members called for higher purses, a push for VLTs, and better promotion of horse racing and the Ohio-bred program. The organization said 14% of the 2,578 mailed surveys were returned.

A study by the Ohio Lottery Commission indicated VLTs would generate about $300 million a year for education. The Akron Beacon Journal reported in mid-February that the lottery commission was behind $19 million in school funding for the seven-month period that ended Jan. 31. Gov. Bob Taft supports a plan that would allow Ohio to participate in multi-state lotteries, but he's against VLTs.

McCann said opinions on whether the VLT issue will come before the legislature range from "it's almost a lock, to this thing will never happen. There are strong arguments against it and in favor of it by various groups in the state."