The Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association has asked the Ohio Harness Horsemen's Association to agree to mediation in an effort to resolve "program and policy differences" between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries in the state.
The announcement is the latest indication that frustration in Ohio continues to grow. Through the first three weeks of 2004, total handle at racetracks is down 13%, or $2.8 million, from the same period in 2003. Total handle in 2003 was down more than $34 million from 2002. And late last year, the racing industry lost its bid to get a video lottery terminal referendum on the March 2004 ballot.
In an outline of issues last year, the Ohio HBPA claimed state law has created inequities that funnel millions of dollars in revenue earned by Thoroughbred racing to harness racing. Part of that stems from a common purse pool that divvies up dark-day simulcast revenue, but efforts by three Ohio tracks to have that law overturned have failed thus far.
"We have lived for too long with policies and programs in Ohio which favor harness racing at the expense of Thoroughbred racing," Bob Reeves, chairman of the Ohio HBPA Purses and Wagering Committee, said in the organization's latest release. "Many of our issues with the harness sector are simply a matter of fairness. The continued subsidization of harness racing by Thoroughbred racing in Ohio has to end."
In an interview last fall, Jerry Knappenberger, general manager of the OHHA, said the organization would attempt to work with Thoroughbred horsemen. At the time, however, all industry sectors were working on the VLT bill.
In November, National HBPA president John Roark met with leaders of Thoroughbred and Standardbred groups in Ohio to encourage the two sides to resolve their differences through negotiations. Ohio HBPA president Gus George said those differences weren't resolved during the most recent OHHA board meeting.
Though on-track numbers continue to decline, horses remain a big business in Ohio from an economic and agricultural standpoint. There are seven commercial racetracks--three Thoroughbred and four Standardbred--that will offer more than 900 live racing programs this year, as well as about 70 county fairs, most of which offer harness racing with limited pari-mutuel wagering.
Meanwhile, account-wagering handle continues to grow through the AmericaTab system, which is owned by two Ohio racetracks--Beulah Park and River Downs--but hubs through Oregon. The Ohio HBPA is negotiating with Beulah Park on a revenue and source-market fee plan with a deadline of Feb. 19, date of the next Ohio State Racing Commission meeting, to have an agreement in place.
At the racing commission's December meeting, commissioners indicated even they have no idea how many Ohio residents make account wagers or whether the industry is receiving its fair share of revenue.
Thus far this year, only Beulah Park, the lone Thoroughbred track open for live racing, has shown a gain in on-track business--only 0.4% compared with the same period last year. Lebanon Raceway and Northfield Park, the two harness tracks open for live racing, have recorded on-track handle losses of 7.9% and 15.1%, respectively, during the first three weeks of the year, according to racing commission statistics.