Massachusetts horsemen achieved a major victory July 7 when state lawmakers reached compromise on the $40-billion 2018 budget bill that eliminates $400 million in spending yet leaves intact a significant portion of the money in the Race Horse Development Fund.
Owners, breeders, and industry stakeholders appeared to be in peril of losing $13 million in the short-term to help balance the budget by redirecting the money to state parks and conservation efforts. In the long-term, the existence of the RHDF was at risk.
The RHDF was established in the 2011 expanded gaming legislation to help the Massachusetts' struggling horse racing industry and is fueled by a percentage of the profits from the state's burgeoning casino industry.
With close to $37 million collected from inception through June 15, the RHDF came under attack from legislators and private citizens who believed the money would be better spent elsewhere than divided between the Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsemen, with 80% directed to purses, 16% allocated to breeders, and 4% given to backside welfare.
"I think we made the economic argument that the (RHDF) money is necessary to either fund the (proposed new Thoroughbred) horse park and all of the promise of employment that it has, or to back up the agricultural community that depends upon that money in parts of the state, and that it is in fact a good investment," said Brian Hickey, the lobbyist for the New England affiliate of the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association.
The version of the 2018 budget bill passed by the State Senate contained an amendment that would have stripped $13 million from the horsemen. The Senate bill was sent to a six-member conference committee, which ultimately decided to strike the amendment in the final bill.
"I don't think the overriding issue (at the Statehouse) was the fact that it kept purses up, even though we understand how important that is. The questions were, 'Is this sport worth saving? Does it create the jobs? Does it have the economic impact? Is it all worth it?' At the end of the day, they thought what we think and the answer is yes. It is. We are very thankful," Hickey said.
Suffolk Downs, the lone surviving Thoroughbred track of the 17 that once operated across New England, opens its six-day 2017 live meet on the weekend of July 8-9 for the first of three weekend racing festivals. Because of the RHDF, purses will average about $500,000 per day, with participation bonuses for owners and trainers. The purse structure is now expected to maintain the same level for six days of racing in 2018.
"By preserving the Race Horse Development Fund, the conference committee is protecting an industry in Massachusetts that has the potential to create up to 1,000 new jobs and $100 million in annual economic activity. The choice was between spending and investing, and the legislature chose to invest in the future of this industry and our economy," said NEHBPA executive director Paul Umbrello. "The NEHBPA is happy with today's news and thanks its members and sponsors for their continued help and support to return full-time racing to New England."