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So you thought '08 was bad, well look at what's ahead

Dec 30, 2008 5:02 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

This messed up year is almost over, and apparently we all survived. As the new one arrives, however, there are smoking battlefields everywhere.

In Ontario, with one of the most enviable setups in North American racing, horsemen are challenging the powerful Woodbine Entertainment Group, asking for more. While labor in Detroit makes concessions, horsemen in Ontario are threatening to boycott the entry box.

This kind of behavior in tough times was tried in Montreal some years ago, when horsemen struck Hippodrome Montreal just as the city’s magnificent downtown casino was opening.

What happened was totally predictable. The horsemen walked out, and so did the track’s customers, who went directly to the new casino without passing go or collecting $200.

Today those customers don’t have to go anywhere. They can turn on their TVs and bet themselves silly, and in a cold climate city like Toronto they are likely to do just that. Woodbine has one of the most sophisticated television operations in racing, and the track’s operators, led by the brilliant David Willmot, already have told horsemen that they will race, boycott or not, short fields or not. Bellicose arrogance in the face of tough times seems a strange course of action, particularly since Woodbine has told its horsemen it would not change the split between the harness and thoroughbred purse shares during the term of a new proposed 3-year-contract. That was a primary demand of the harness horsemen who are threatening to strike.

Across the country, on the west coast, California faces the demolition of one of the country’s great racetracks, Hollywood Park, by summer’s end. Its present owners, who shuttered Bay Meadows, have plans for a huge housing and commercial development. The state’s racing commission chairman, trailblazing Richard Shapiro, quit, frustrated in his somewhat unrealistic hope of getting people back to racetracks.

In the Midwest, racing and casinos are still battling over $80 million held in escrow in a Chicago bank, awaiting distribution to the tracks and their horsemen. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled the money, from the state’s four most prosperous riverboat casinos, belonged to racing, as a duly legislated "impact fee" for hurting the tracks. The casinos – one of them owned by a major racetrack – are threatening to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The enabling legislation was signed by embattled governor Rod Blagojevich shortly after his arrest, and that action now is likely to be challenged as well by the casinos because of the Blagojevich turmoil.

In Kansas two major gambling powers – Harrah’s Entertainment and Penn National – pulled out of the state after planning casinos that quickly became unattractive even before the first brick was laid, essentially ending the state’s dream of huge revenues to help with its finances.

In the east, the governor of New York, David Paterson, proposes to open up gambling to everyone, all the time. He wants to turn Quick Draw, the state’s keno operation, into a 24-hour enterprise, and let the state’s track racinos operate on the same 24-hour basis. He also wants to allow construction of a racino at big and beautiful Belmont Park, but the leader of the state Assembly, powerful Sheldon Silver, resists the idea and may be able to block it.

Maybe.

In Massachusetts neither tracks nor Indian tribes are making much headway in getting casinos over the objections of the governor and strong legislative opposition.

In Delaware, suddenly faced with new opposition with the legalization of slots in neighboring Maryland, sports betting is a cinch bet by spring. The state is one of four in the union where it is legal, and a new incoming governor is likely to find it attractive to bolster budget shortfalls.

In Atlanta, talk of gambling is surfacing again, and again will be shot down by religious and other opposition.

In Las Vegas, Steve Wynn and his latest extravaganza, Encore, have captured all attention once again. The man is amazing, a city treasure. With casino revenues falling precipitously, he plunges ahead with a new two billion dollar attraction that has superseded the bad news and keeps the city on the world map.

So that’s where we are, gambling-wise in brief, as we head into a new year and a new era.

Cross your fingers, once again.