Racino slots makelots of horse sense

May 20, 2003 11:40 PM

Last week’s burnt offering singed the sensibilities of the boss, which normally is unwise unless one enjoys wearing tattered clothes, going long intervals between eating, and bearing other burdens of the destitute.

It so happens, however, that the proprietor of this place, Chuck Di Rocco, and I grew up 90 miles apart in very tough neighborhoods, he in the brawling confines of South Philadelphia and I in the bruising battleground of the hard coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania. In both places one learned while still in short pants that you spoke up, squared off, and then put the matter behind you.

So while Chuck and I differ in our views on the Viceroy of Virtue, William Bennett, that matter now has been disposed of between us after 12 rounds and a split decision.

The option of a rematch on that issue is remote, but I now turn to someone, unlike William Bennett, who Chuck and I both admire: Bill Eadington, a nationally known economist at the University of Nevada Reno who knows more about the dynamics of gaming than anyone alive. While visiting my precincts in Tucson a while back, Dr. Eadington delivered a masterful and scholarly dissertation on why casinos at racetracks do not make sense.

While Chuck DiRocco and I have fairly similar backgrounds, Bill Eadington and I do not. He is a distinguished professor of economics, a subject I have had trouble with since high school. To this day I cannot understand a word that Alan Greenspan speaks. Prudence says I should not tangle with Bill Eadington. Prudence aside, I disagree with one of his theories.

In Tucson, Bill said, "If you have slot machines at racetracks, you really don’t have racetracks anymore. You have casinos that happen to have animals that run in circles."

That theory falls apart if a visitor happens to drop in at Woodbine in Toronto, where the ultimate racino is located. It is true that animals run in circles there, but that is their fate almost everywhere they race.

Racing at Woodbine is not an afterthought. It is paramount in the mind of David Willmot, the man who runs it in splendor, and it is likely that it will be paramount in the next metropolitan racing executive who last week seemingly was tapped to run what may become the biggest racino of all.

Barry Schwartz of the New York Racing Association got most of what he was after last week when the New York state legislature rudely knocked its governor, George Pataki, flat and stomped on him. Pataki opposed the tax bill the legislature had passed, and vetoed it. In a legislative microsecond, the legislature rose up and smote their leader, overriding his veto and putting into law their bill, which pretty much gives New York racetracks what they need to make racinos viable.

Tracks now have a 10-year sunset provision, instead of five.

They now have 16 consecutive hours of operation, instead of 12.

They now get 29% of slot revenues, instead of 25, with 20.5% going to the tracks for the first three years and 7.5% to purses for horsemen.

They now will have no minimum balance requirements for phone account wagering, and the thoroughbred tracks will be able to take out-of-state thoroughbred signals at night, which they formerly could not do.

They now can set their own takeout rates.

So with all of this now law, it seems almost certain that the major New York tracks will go ahead with their racinos, and the animals going around in circles at them will be better animals, and more of them, because the purses in New York will become towering in short order.

What makes a "better horse" better is not speed alone. Cheap horses can go fast, but they cannot do it consistently, and it is the consistency of better horses that makes them better betting propositions. So handle should go up in New York.

As long as racing management is dedicated to racing, as it is at Woodbine and NYRA and Delaware Park and a few other spots enjoying rejuvenation, racinos are a good thing for racing. And since racing is an agricultural-based industry, which casinos are not, they may be good public policy too.