Horse racing troubles keep mounting, north and south

Jan 6, 2009 5:03 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

While you were sleeping, or whatever you do in the early morning hours in Las Vegas or wherever, here are a few things that were going on in the alien east.

Horse trainers in Montreal and other cities in Quebec were either already sending race horses to abattoirs for slaughter or were thinking about it, after a provincial court slapped a moratorium on all racing and shut down the province’s four racetracks.

Essentially out of money and cut off from their livelihoods, the Quebec horsemen are desperate. There are no numbers on how many people in this country or Canada live from paycheck to paycheck, but it is in the tens of millions, and it is a frightening situation for those people when the checks stop arriving, or when they are not there to even seek.

The reason for the crisis is a dispute between the province of Quebec and a group called Attractions Hippique, or more specifically its founder and leader, Paul J. Massicotte.

Mr. Massicotte is a heavy hitter in Quebec. He was a provincial senator, runs major enterprises, and had enough clout to win the operating rights for the four tracks in the province: Hippodrome de Montreal; Sulky Quebec in Quebec City; Hippodrome d’Aylmer in that town; and Sulky Trois Rivieres in Three Rivers.

Initially, he had huge plans for all four tracks, including tearing down Hippodrome de Montreal in a highly populated area of Montreal and on one of the city’s major boulevards, and rebuilding it north of the city. As often happens, those plans evaporated with troubles, including under performing Loto-Québec gambling parlors that were key to Massicott’s plans, but did not produce anywhere near the revenue predicted or that he expected. Now, with the court ending racing until the issues are resolved, the horsemen of Montreal – and their horses – suffer.

In Toronto, the Ontario racing scenario also took bizarre twists. Horsemen there, members of the Ontario Harness Horse Association, boycotted the entry box of one of the most successful racing operations in North America, Woodbine. The track fired back, announcing it would race, boycott or not, and it has, in effect breaking the boycott. But last week the horsemen met and voted to extend their strike.

In New Jersey, the Atlantic City casinos used their power in the state to block racinos at the state’s racetracks. It cost them $90 million for three years of continued exclusive slot monopoly, but one of the tracks – Freehold Raceway – is owned by a Pennsylvania consortium, and it refused to sign the agreement. Last week it announced a 25 percent cut in purses, the money paid to winning horse owners.

The horsemen acknowledged that Freehold had overpaid them by $900,000 in an effort to uphold its commitments to purses, but said the track was forfeiting $4.5 million by not signing. Freehold said it had no intention to sign an agreement that imposed site-specific restrictions limiting gaming expansion for its owners.

These boulders in the way of progress elsewhere should make clear to Vegas casino operators that their money troubles, while obviously serious, are at least free of the divisive and disastrous frictions flaring in other jurisdictions.

A major racing conference is coming up in the first week of February, and it will be held at the Bellagio. Besides escaping the vagaries of eastern weather, the racing moguls know a good thing when they see it. And Las Vegas, business down or not, still is a destination of choice.

That doesn’t mean the city is without competition, or that more is not on the way.

In New Jersey, the state’s largest newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, says the casinos will not be able to withstand for long the pressures to save New Jersey’s racing industry, which produces 13,000 jobs and preserves 176,000 acres of green space. It predicts slots at Monmouth Park, the Meadowlands and Freehold Raceway.