US racing interests worry about plans to curb casino subsidies
Horse track operators and breeders are concerned that the good times might be trotting to a close as some states move to rein in a lucrative subsidy that he has helped prop up their long-suffering industry.
Twenty states divert a slice of casino and slots parlors revenue to help boost horse racing prize money, according to the American Gaming Association. Bigger purses, the thinking goes, will draw the top-level horses and generate more track bets, helping revive the once-popular industry.
But facing budget deficits and out-of-state casino competition, some lawmakers are reassessing.
"Every local track and every local horsemen's group is always worried about that," says Christopher Scherf, executive vice-president of the Maryland-based Thoroughbred Racing Associations. "Politicians see someone has money and they figure they can use it. That's what they do."
Generally, the racing subsidies call for diverting a percentage of table game and slot machine revenues to a state fund with strict guidelines for how the money is spent.
Massachusetts, for example, gives 75 per cent of the money to the thoroughbred racing industry and the rest to harness racing. The two industries must then dedicate 80 per cent to racing purses, 16 per cent towards races reserved for Massachusetts-bred horses and four per cent to health and retirement benefits for industry workers.
Such subsidies are a critical lifeline for racing, which has seen steady declines across a number of industry metrics, including the number of races and racing horse births and overall betting activity, according to data from the Jockey Club, a leading industry group.
Few tracks even keep attendance numbers anymore because the number of spectators has dropped off so dramatically, experts say.
Nevertheless, there was over $1.1 billion in prize money available in 2014, thanks in large part to the racing subsidies, which generated over $400 million towards purses that year, according to the Thoroughbred Racing Associations.
Louis Raffetto, a long-time racing executive, says the subsidy is a small price to pay to preserve thousands of jobs at tracks and farms.
"It's minuscule in the grand scheme of things. The economic benefit is well worth those short dollars," says Raffetto, who is helping coordinate three "festival" thoroughbred race days at Boston's Suffolk Downs, starting with a Saturday race card featuring over $500,000 in prize money made possible by the state's new race horse development fund.