Simulcasting rings its death knell for racing

Feb 24, 2009 5:05 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Tracks need live racing to stay alive

It is 46 years since then governor John King of New Hampshire blazed the trail for state lotteries in the modern era by signing a local option bill opening the way.

Add another 10, during which Rep. Larry Pickett tried five times to get the legislation passed, failing in his first four efforts before his colleagues agreed to try his lottery to raise money for education.

There were 211 municipalities in New Hampshire at the time, and 198 voted to adopt the lottery in March of 1964. The first tickets were sold March 12, and the pioneering New Hampshire lottery has raised $1.2 billion for schools since. That seems a pittance in light of the trillions being tossed around today, but 37 other states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and five provinces in Canada, have joined that bandwagon with lotteries of their own, following the Granite State.

The birth of state lotteries is interesting today only as history, but the New Hampshire legislature again is considering the adoption of trailblazing gaming legislation.

It is looking at a bill that could be fatally dangerous for horse and dog racing in the Granite State, and everywhere else.

It proposes allowing state tracks to offer simulcasting without conducting live racing.

Dog racing’s very existence is threatened. It was abolished in the Massachusetts elections of last November. The Gray2K group opposes the sport, and vigorously lobbies against greyhound racing on grounds of cruelty to animals has picked up the battle now in neighboring New Hampshire.

Horse racing at Rockingham Park also is threatened. President and general manager Ed Callahan, one of the senior racing executives in the country active today in terms of length of service, told boston.com last week that if Rockingham did not get slots soon, it would disappear. "The time line grows shorter," he said. "The reality is there will be something else on the property if legislation isn’t passed soon." And he added, perhaps surprisingly for a racing man, but realistically, "Racing is not the entertainment option it once was."

The widening gulf between the haves and have-nots in horse racing is likely to grow wider this year, and Rockingham, with more than a century of operation behind it, would be a sad loss for the sport.

The measure currently under consideration in the New Hampshire legislature presents a totally different threat. It could serve as precedent and encouragement to other states to follow suit, as they did on lotteries.

This danger has been the monster in the closet for horsemen everywhere since it began in earnest in the 1980s. If legislatures begin stripping away racing’s protection against oblivion by allowing them to shut down racing but continue simulcasting, it will change the racing scene in America even more than now. Roughly 85% of horse race wagering is bet through simulcasting today, but most states mandate live racing as a requirement to send or receive signals.

New Hampshire may be proud as its role as the genesis of state lotteries. It would be a pioneering irony if it led again, enacting legislation that if followed by others could be the death knell of live horse racing as we know it.

Speaking of horsemen, there is another racing irony playing out in Quebec, involving the province’s big track, Hippodrome de Montreal, and three others between Montreal and Quebec City.

All four are owned, through provincial grant, by Attractions Hippique, the creation of Senator Paul Massicotte, a Montreal financier.

Massicotte plunged into huge renovation with his four tracks after acquiring them in 2006. He planned to build a new track north of Montreal, tear down Hippodrome, and renovate his three racing properties in outlying Quebec.

He planned to finance this ambitious program with money from Quebec’s slot machine operation, which includes Loto-Quebec facilities in or adjacent to the tracks. When they fell vastly short of projections, Massicotte’s Attractions Hippique fell with them.

Quebec’s horsemen currently are out of action, unable to earn a living, and growing desperate after the government closed the tracks as the dispute between them and management deepened without resolution

In recent weeks, the provincial government was considering a $25 million, 25-year bailout of Attractiions Hippique. The horsemen met and unanimously voted to oppose the legislation, claiming Massicotte is reneging on his plans to build a new track and is not fulfilling a contract signed three years ago that calls for $153 million in purses over five years.

A spokeswoman for Monique Jerome-Forget, the province’s finance minister, warned of "risks having consequences," and said, "An industry cannot function if the people who comprise it aren’t on board."

Racing executives and participants in the United States please note: Madame Jerome-Forget’s call for unity crosses federal, provincial, state and city lines, including those enveloping Las Vegas.