Uncertain future of racing in Massachusetts worries horsemen

BY Loren Savini, the Sun Chronicle

BOSTON – The Massachusetts Gaming Commission was supposed to take up the mechanics of fusing old racing statutes with new gambling rules at a forum this week.

But nervous horse breeders and racetrack officials wouldn’t stay on track.

Assembled in Hynes Convention Center Wednesday, they wanted to talk about a more basic issue: the uncertain future of horse racing in Massachusetts.

“This year is so terrible because none of us know what’s going to happen,” said Anthony Spadea, president of the New England Horsemen’s Association. “Most of our people don’t have another place to go race.”

With applications in for the state’s lone slot parlor, the commission, which will decide the winner, hosted a horse racing forum Wednesday to discuss matters such as distribution of purse accounts, tax withholding, congressional involvement in the industry and what would happen to purse money if horse racing founders in Massachusetts.

But the uncertainty of whether Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville or another track would get the slot parlor go-ahead kept dominating the conversation, illustrating how the decision about a racino is seen as a life or death issue for racing in the state.

“Most racing seasons are like a roller coaster ride,” said panelist Steve O’Toole, the general manager of Plainridge. “There are ups and downs. This year has been one of those. Today, operating a racetrack is a gamble.”

O’Toole said Plainridge runs at least a million-dollar deficit each year operating races. Key to the track’s survival could be the offer from the gambling corporation Penn National Gaming to buy the struggling harness racecourse if it wins the state’s only slot parlor license.

Without the license, the track would have difficulty staying in business.

In the track’s best years, about 125 horses were purchased (claimed), O’Toole said.

“Last year, we had just half a dozen horses claimed,” he said.

As the conversation about the declining business dominated the forum, commission Chairman Steve Crosby kept trying to turn the subject back to the original intent of the forum, getting out “the information that would build a strategy that would sustain a horse racing industry in Massachusetts for a long, long time.”

But many panelists said that until they knew whether they would be racing next year, they couldn’t discuss the future.

“It looks like we’re going to lose another breeding season in 2013,” said George Brown, president of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association. “It’s a big investment – raising a foal for two years. We don’t even know if we’re going to be racing.”

Breeding has steadily declined in Massachusetts since early 2000, the horsemen said.

Mike Tanner, CEO of the United States Trotting Association, said he believed lack of racino legislation, in which slot machines would help subsidize horse racing, was responsible for the drop in breeding numbers.

“These are numbers that would affect our level of business,” he said. “Indiana racino legislation passed in 2007, and their breeding numbers went up 50 percent after it passed. The numbers continue to trend in a positive direction.”

Plainridge officials have sought other forums to make their point.

Last week, they posted a video on YouTube that extolled the positive impact expanded gaming and racino legislation would have on the Plainville track.

The video featured Jolene Andrews, a trainer and driver from North Attleboro, who explained how her livelihood could be saved.

“Year-by-year, the purses get lower and lower, and with Penn National coming, it gives us hope,” she said in the video.

The video narration also mentioned “hundreds of family farms and thousands of acres of open space,” that would be saved if Plainridge was granted racino status.

The video’s message echoed the testimony of the nervous stakeholders at the commission meeting, despite efforts by commissioners to confine the conversation to issues of regulation.

Jennifer Durenburger, the commission’s director of racing, reminded panelists of the “gypsy lifestyle” they had chosen by working in the industry.

“You’re always looking three months ahead,” she said. “We can all tolerate a certain amount of risk, or we wouldn’t be in this industry.”

With forum members still focused on the uncertainty of racing, Crosby put an end to the meeting almost an hour ahead of schedule.

“This is just not the time for all of us to be able to sit down and work out a macro fix to the horse racing legislation,” he said. “We appreciate the way you feel about your industry. We’ll be doing what we can to pitch in.”