Slots credited with saving race tracks

Oct 23, 2001 9:04 AM

The message was loud and clear that slots have saved horse racing in many areas of North America, even if two-thirds of the seminar room was empty.

“Race tracks in Ontario (Canada) were a dying business before slots were introduced,” said Jane Holmes, executive director of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry in addressing a Town Hall session on racing and gaming at the 15th annual World Gaming Congress and Expo in the Sands Convention Center.

Holmes oversees 18 tracks across Ontario, where the industry was feeling the pressure from gaming sites and sporting events in Canada and the Detroit area.

“Windsor Raceway was in competition with the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings in Pontiac and with Casino Windsor,” she said. “The (Canadian) government understood that tracks needed help, so they gave us a tax break and allowed slot machines to be instituted.”

Slot revenues have soared in the past two years in Ontario, with Holmes describing the situation as “us providing the facility and the race tracks becoming the landlords.”

There was a 41 percent increase in purses last year at the tracks as the number of race days steadily rose.

“Husbands and wives now had a place to go and have a great time,” she said. “The men would go play the horses and the women would head for the slots. It was the perfect way for us to promote the facilities as an entertainment venue.”

Holmes said some of the tracks, including Woodbine, would offer a summer concert series as another means of raising revenue.

“Woodbine, our largest facility with 1,700 slot machines, is open 365 days a week from 11 a.m. until 3 a.m. featuring racing and slots,” she stated. “We had $211 million in revenues in 1999 and two years later we were up to $905 million through September. We have attracted a whole new crowd of people thanks to gaming.”

The Canadian success story from Ontario has also spread to the U.S. Mainland in states such as Iowa, Delaware and, especially, West Virginia.

“Tracks in West Virginia aren’t just about horses and dogs any longer,” said Ron Sultemeier, president of Sportsystems Corporation and owner of Wheeling Downs. “I am not here to have a debate about the morality of gaming. It just makes sense to do it.”

Live racing comprised 89 percent of the business at eight race tracks in 1990. That figure plunged to 28 percent a decade later, according to Sultemeier.

“Wheeling Downs began as a harness track in 1976 on the State Fairgrounds,” he said. “Now it is a dog track. We had a flood in 1996 that set us back quite a bit, but when the legislature passed the bill to allow video lottery terminals in 1994, it allowed us to withstand the blow of the flood and recover.”

Sultemeier said that his state now has 1,400 slot machines and has seen the limits rise from $2 to $5 per unit.

“Because of slots, our purses have risen 420 percent,” he said. “There has been such a huge growth since 1993. Slots are a money maker in Wheeling and it can be a money maker anywhere.”

Moderator Richard Thalheimer, director of the department of equine business at the University of Louisville, said that purses were up 15.5 percent as a result of slots.

“Huge additions of machines equal huge purses,” he said. “Daily purses climbed from $19,000 in 1991 to $85,000 in 1999 and our race days were cut from 225 to 211. We are a $180 million industry and growing strong.”