With simulcasting, who needs so many American racetracks?

September 25, 2007 5:34 AM
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Twenty-five years ago a young lawyer, then editing The Blood-Horse magazine, warned about a contraction and shrinking of racing that lay ahead.

His name was Kent Hollingsworth, and he wrote a column called "What’s Going On Here?" The column survived Kent, whose last assignment was teaching racing law at the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program.

Hollingsworth wrote when simulcasting was only an idea, but he foresaw and forecast that when it arrived it would change American horseracing. He predicted that ultimately only three big tracks would be needed: one in New York, one in Chicago, and one in Los Angeles.

Kent died young, but wherever good young lawyers and teachers wind up, he must be telling his colleagues, "I told you so." We are not down to three tracks yet, but we’re on our way.

Bay Meadows will be gone by next fall, and Hollywood Park, owned by the same developers, is likely to follow not too long after.

Magna Entertainment announced two weeks ago that it was selling Portland Meadows and Great Lakes Downs, and real estate around Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita, and hinted that both tracks conceivably could be sold to reduce debt. It announced this week it was buying out the interest of Joe DeFrancis and his sister Karin in the Maryland Jockey Club. That gives Magna full ownership of Pimlico, its Preakness, and Laurel, to do what they choose with the properties.

In Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, after deliberating for months, decided not to give slots to the tracks, but rather authorize bidding from the big bucks boys to build three full-blown casinos in the state. Two of the state’s four tracks — Suffolk Downs and Plainridge Racecourse — immediately said they would forego racing to become casinos if that is what the state wants.

 Suffolk, recently purchased by a successful developer, now sits pretty with its East Boston track next to Boston’s Logan Airport and just through the tunnel from the heart of the city. If Patrick does not want a casino that close, Plainridge, located on a major interstate highway with good access from both Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, could wind up the logical choice.

Who gets the three licenses is unknown, of course, but both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have expressed deep interest to protect their northern flanks and open a totally new market.

In Maryland, the stalemate between the new governor and the old House Speaker continues, the governor wanting racinos and the Speaker opposing them. Maryland’s horseracing industry, once a glory of the state, is in a very precarious position, with slots now at tracks in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.

And then there is New Jersey. It reportedly may rehire Dennis Robinson, who ran the busy New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority after Bob Mulcahy left to become athletic director at Rutgers. Robinson then left too, to become senior vice president of the National Basketball Association

Whoever gets the high-paying job, he too will face the dilemma of trying to operate major league racing without slots.

The contract under which Atlantic City’s casinos supplement purses at the tracks expires at the end of the year. Getting it renewed will be difficult, and getting slots at the tracks will be even more difficult.

To complicate matters, the New Jersey State Police, in one of the year’s most stupid moves, reassigned the nation’s best racing detective and three others who policed the state’s racing. The move apparently was triggered by internal forces or, far more ominously, by outside forces.

The lead investigator, Sergeant Brice Cote, is being reassigned because, headquarters says, "The State Police has changed its strategy in resource deployment." Cote was a licensed, practicing trainer, conversant with racing and its inhabitants, particularly in New Jersey, when he gave up training horses to join the State Police. He is irreplaceable, but the New Jersey State Police are going to transfer his vast inside knowledge by hiring two former cops, saying "all of our people are capable." Of what?

Anthony Abbatiello, who headed the New Jersey harness owners and breeders association for more than 20 years, and whose brother Carmen was a New York favorite in the halcyon days at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceway, now is a New Jersey racing commissioner. "None of us," he says, "has any idea of what’s driving this."

Someone besides an ex-cop should find out, and do something about it.