Slots-racing deals come under new attack

Voices of gloom are heard in the land.

Peter Carlino, whose Penn National Gaming is the biggest success story of the racing and gambling year, told investors and analysts last week that supporting cheap horses with inflated purses, as slots at tracks have been doing, is not his business plan and that he is not running a public charity.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is proposing to cut the purses at the state’s two tracks by more than half, which would have a huge impact on the countless horsemen who have flocked to Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs as the new Shangri-Las of racing.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, soaking up the casino sunshine as the hero of Atlantic City, still says no to the Meadowlands and the sure-fire success that a casino-owned gaming operation there could assure for both the casinos and the racetrack and pledges $251 million to finish the stalled Revel hotel and casino, a private enterprise, raising questions in leading newspapers both in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as to why the revelry.

The Boston Herald runs a big story over the internal strife at Suffolk Downs between management and horsemen, under a headline reading, “Suffolk jobs may be in peril over simulcast dispute.” The president of the track’s union, representing 184 workers, calls the fight “deplorable and patently unfair.” Oregon adds its voice to those barring simulcasts from Suffolk.

And now comes Bill Finley, the hard-hitting columnist for ESPN and contributor to The New York Times, asking “Say goodbye to slots gravy train?” and saying, “The good times are about to end, and a lot sooner than you might have thought.”

Finley writes, “A system – broke state governments allowing tens of millions in slots revenue to go to horse racing – that could never last is starting to crumble.” He says “the first few weeks of 2011 have included some very ominous news for the slots-racing relationship and the future of horse racing.”

What this all means for racing is uncertain. Our resilient sport has survived buffetings of all kinds for years – it really has been its history – but what it means for the people owning horses is something else.

How well racing can battle this challenge in the coming months will determine the future for many people currently making a living off the game. Indiana is by far the best case in point.

The rise of its two tracks, both with slots, has been dramatic and has triggered the influx of scores of new marginal breeders. There are more than 200 standardbred farms alone with one horse or more in the state, and purses at Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs, both multiple-breed tracks, have soared to new all-time highs. People have sent better stallions and mares, stables have sent better horses to race, and breeding operations have undergone substantial capital investments.

A 43 percent cut in purses may fit the governor’s needs, or Carlino’s visions of racing reality, but both need to understand the economic fallout that can follow. Carlino already does, having acknowledged the agricultural benefits that have accrued. But that is not his business. He is a gaming operator – perhaps the best in the business – and breeding horses or owning them is not his primary concern, although he started with a racetrack, Penn National near Harrisburg, Pa., and built it into an empire. We suspect he still cares deeply about racing.

The old order featured horsemen who did love the sport, deeply. The Belmonts and Vanderbilts and Whitneys and Phippses did and do, but most of them and their fellow patrons of the game are long gone. There still are rich men who love racing, but there are far more poor men who love it just as much.

The difference is that those who can afford it will make it. Those in the middle and at the bottom of the ladder, as always, may or may not. Racing cannot afford that.

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