Slots may not save racing, but they help

Jun 5, 2007 5:42 AM

It used to be fans went to the nearby racetrack to bet on a few races, or in some cases, on an entire racing card. If the featured race was important, say something like a Triple Crown event, or just a minor stakes race at a smaller track, people came out in droves.

But that was before lotteries, off-track betting, account wagering, and casinos.

Where crowds might be numbered in the thousands at the bigger tracks, now even major events, exclusive of the Triple Crown, have trouble drawing appreciable numbers. And, if the track has been granted permission to install slot machines and become what has been termed a "racino," the larger part of attendees will be found in the area where the one-armed bandits now sit.

Recently, Richard Fields, the new majority owner of Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Mass., has announced that he plans to restore the famed Massachusetts Handicap to the track’s racing schedule. The Mass Cap has been scrapped in recent years because of poor attendance at the track. Few fans remember the excitement that the likes of Cigar, Whirlaway, Stymie and the famed Seabiscuit created in past runnings of the famed race.

Like so many of the smaller tracks throughout the country, those that have not been favored by their legislators with a slots franchise have struggled to stay alive. This has created major battles among lawmakers from Maine to California.

In Maine, the legislature put the slots question up to the voters. They responded by permitting a small harness track — Bangor Raceway — to add the gaming devices. The track was scooped up by the growing gaming giant Penn National Gaming and has been a resounding success. So much so, that Penn National is building a larger facility to house even more video lottery machines to replace the existing temporary facility that previously was a restaurant.

California lawmakers, on the other hand, whose support comes strongly from rich Indian casino operators, have failed to support their horse tracks by permitting alternative gaming. Thus, crowds at such famed venues as Santa Anita and Hollywood Park are now so thin that some fear for their future.

That’s exactly what is happening in northern California where Bay Meadows is on the brink of packing it in for good.

So far, Delaware, Iowa, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Rhode Island, New York, Arkansas, Florida and Indiana have passed "racino" laws. And, where the tracks have installed the video lottery terminals, the tracks have rebounded. In some cases, the tracks have flourished.

Currently, lawmakers are considering slots in Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Illinois, Michigan and Texas.

Prospects are looking brighter in Kentucky where the Democratic nominee Steve Beshaer is favored to defeat incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Beshaer is on record as recommending a constitutional amendment to expand gambling in the state.

Massachusetts now has a better chance of having some form of expanded gambling with Gov. Deval Patrick in charge on Beacon Hill. His predecessor, Mitt Romney, kept the matter in check by warning he would veto any gambling bill that reached his desk.

Just last week, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who sees slots as a way of boosting state revenues, says she will consider a plan to allow Michigan horse tracks to use gambling machines that use previously run races for customers to bet on.

Not all horse racing enthusiasts support using slot machines to prop up the sport. In some jurisdictions, negativity from within and the lack unanimity among horsemen has prevented the passage of favorable legislation.

Some still ask, "Will slot machines save horse racing?"

To some, at least, they have been the answer to people’s prayers.