MOUNT VERNON — For over 75 years, Ohioans have been betting at race tracks since the “Horse Racing Act” was authorized by the 90th General Assembly in 1933. Today, the ability to place as little as $2 in parimutuel wagering is in serious jeopardy as many of the seven race tracks in the state are falling prey to the bright lights and big payoffs at race tracks in surrounding states — tracks that are all abuzz with the lights and sounds of slot machines.
“Thistledown is in bankruptcy reconstruction. As early as next week we could see two other tracks close and another has already said it would not open next year,” said Thomas Zaino, Ohio Racing Commission member and author of a proposal aimed to save the horse racing industry from an untimely death.
If you think that sounds bad, it gets worse. The commission predicts that without legislation from Ohio’s General Assembly allowing these seven race tracks to install slot machines, Ohio could lose over 70 percent of its race tracks.
“We are not crying wolf. If nothing else changes, we could be down to just two race tracks in two to three years,” Zaino said.
The horse industry in Ohio, both standard bred (harness racing) and thoroughbred, employs over 12,300 Ohioans and racing’s current total economic impact is expected to top $460 million.
The racing commission’s proposal would allow each of the tracks, which are already licensed with parimutuel horse racing permits, to install 2,000 slot machines each with the acquisition of a $50 million gaming license.
In addition to the licensing fee, each track would be required to invest at least $80 million each in the facility for improvements such as hotels, restaurants and gaming areas.
When asked if $130 million was a lot of money for already fledgling race tracks, Zaino said yes, but believes the financing would be available as the payoff would be well worth the investment.
“This would be a long-term investment. It would take three or four years before things were fully ramped up,” Zaino said. “This is why we would want this to start sooner rather than later.”
Zaino said the commission was hoping the proposal would be included as part of the state’s budget authorizing a statute that would allow the racing commission to govern the gaming. If approved, 50 percent of the gross proceeds would go to the operators, 2 percent would be used to pay for oversight of the gaming and the remaining 48 percent would go to the state of Ohio to help balance educational funding.
Quick to explain the proposal was solely designed to save horse racing in Ohio, assisting the state with educational funding is only a bonus in the whole scenario, according to Zaino.
“This is not a panacea for Ohio’s economy. This proposal was addressed to save horse racing and the horse industry, not to cure the state’s budget problem,” Zaino said.
However, money wouldn’t just be pouring in from the slot machine profits, bed taxes, track revenue, personal income tax from the creation of jobs, all these things and more would factor into increased revenue for the many layers of government.
“It doesn’t make sense to raise other taxes when Ohioans are gambling in other states,” Zaino said.
Gambling they are, with estimates totaling over $1.276 billion to “day-trip markets in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Canada, Indiana, West Virginia and New York,” according to the proposal. By 2010, that dollar figure is expected to climb to $1.62 billion.
Ohio’s 90th District Representative Margaret Ann Ruhl said she has been talking with constituents in the horse industry and believes slots at race tracks would be a good fit that serves a greater purpose.
“I would not support a stand-alone casino. … Slot machines and race tracks are different. People are already gambling when they go [to race tracks]. If slot machines can help save the industry, then I’m all for it.”
Unfortunately, while some members have shown support, Zaino doesn’t believe others in the Ohio House and Senate will be as easily convinced of the merits of the proposal.
“I don’t hold out a lot of hope,” Zaino said. “We continue to allow hemorrhaging as Ohioans drive $1.3 billion across the state line. It doesn’t have to be that way. We just want to create a level playing field.”