Very little quiet on the Eastern front

After only three weeks of the new year, looking east at the racing and gaming landscape is like viewing a scarred battlefield.

In Florida, Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park, eight miles apart, planning head-and-head conflicting winter dates thru the high tourist season from January until April.

In Ohio, ominous saber-rattling from new governor John Kasich. In a chilling announcement involving all of the state’s racetracks, Kasich let it be known he was not happy with the 33-percent state share of coming slot-machine revenue set by his predecessor, and said if the public understood the deal for Ohio’s four largest cities – Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo – it wouldn’t be happy either. He didn’t call for another vote, but intimated he would be looking for ways to increase the tax hit in the state’s favor.

In Illinois, cries of treason and a double-cross. Horsemen in the Prairie State felt euphoric over the prospect of slots at ailing Illinois tracks, part of a huge new gaming and racing initiative they understood had 65-percent support in the legislature, where 60 percent would get the job done. Then, hours before a scheduled vote on closing day of a lame-duck session that would end the old legislature’s tenure, a principal backer of the measure, Chicago-area state representative Lou Lang, decided not to present the bill for a vote. Horsemen and track operators were stunned and shocked, and Lang, who has long been a supporter of racing in the state, went to long lengths to explain his decision to not submit the bill, and hopefully appease racing. He wrote a lengthy letter to racing leaders, saying late session vote switches left him with only 55 percent support and a threatened veto from governor Pat Quinn. The measure cannot be carried to the new legislature. It must start over from ground zero, and Lang promised a new bill for racing alone, leaving out the riverboat casinos that also would have been helped in the legislation not considered. Chances for a racing-only bill seem remote.

In New Jersey, the legislature approved Gov. Chris Christie’s bill for establishment of a “tourism district” in Atlantic City, which would transfer jurisdictional authority from city to state. But it also issued a rebuff to Christie – one of its first – when it passed a measure that would provide $30 million to the state racing commission for distribution to Jersey tracks, with $15 million payable this year, $10 million in 2012, and $5 million the year following. There was nervous speculation among horsemen that Christie might line-veto the measure. Or allow it to pass and allow peace to reign. Or, in what was being called “a not-now-but-later” veto, allow it to pass as approved by the legislature, but then have the racing commission ignore the measure and never make a distribution. The president of the state’s harness horsemen, Tom Luchento, who has worked hard trying to get Christie to honor his campaign promises to help New Jersey racing, asked plaintively, “Do you think he’d be that devious?” Whether yes or no on that question, Christie has cast his stubborn support to the hard-hit ocean resort city and its glitzy casinos, and remains adamantly opposed to slots at the Meadowlands, even rejecting the possibility of an Atlantic City-operated casino consortium that could run slots there, save the Meadowlands, and allow everyone to live happily ever after.

In New York, Indian warfare. The St. Regis Mohawks and Oneida Nation, both based in the state and claiming territorial imperative, objecting to the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge-Munsee band’s stealth attack, in which the Midwesterners, under cover of political darkness, won approval from former governor David Paterson for a Catskill casino site. Paterson signed on to a land claim switch, in which the Wisconsin Indians would give up claims to 23,000 acres of land they had taken from them in the 1850s in return for 333 acres not far from Monticello Raceway and Vernon Downs. That land swap has pitted Gary Pretlow, chairman of the New York Assembly’s Racing and Wagering Committee, against New York U.S. senator Charles Schumer. Pretlow is asking the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, to reject the pact. Schumer supports it wholeheartedly.

In Massachusetts, hope seemed fading for slots at the state’s two racetracks, Suffolk Downs and Plainridge Racecourse. Reelected governor Deval Patrick, interviewed on a television talk show, said he was open to discussion, but “What I won’t compromise on is no-bid contracts for racetracks.” The show’s co-host, Janet Wu, persisted, saying, “So in other words, one racino, that’s it for you.” Patrick replied, “Well, it’s not about one racino. I was willing earlier to compromise on one slot parlor, but . . . . I’m not going to support a limited number of vested interests being the only ones to do it.”

Finally, this Friday, Rosecroft Raceway, nestled in a pretty little suburban valley near Washington, will be auctioned to the highest bidder. Three prospective hopefuls are challenging Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who submitted a “stalking bid” of $ 9 million, plus another $5 million if the law is changed to allow a racino there by the end of next year.

One of the bidders is powerful Penn National Gaming. It has said nothing about its plans, but it takes no seer to envision winning Rosecroft, getting its harness license transferred to Laurel Racecourse, which it owns in part, and using Rosecroft as a simulcasting site and perhaps a major training center for trotters and pacers. Rosecroft once was a popular and thriving operation where major eastern stables would send 2-year-olds for peaceful preparation for bigger wars. No one is saying anything, but Laurel has two tracks – an abandoned half-miler and a mile course, which – if the Meadowlands falls or fails in its bid to get private ownership – could be a future home for the Hambletonian, the Kentucky Derby of harness racing, with Laurel returning as a dual-breed power.

Ah, intrigue. Even in war, it is fascinating.

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