Smarty Jones put Pennsylvania horse racing on the map when he nearly won the Triple Crown in 2004. That year Pennsylvania became one of the country’s most lucrative racing states, though the laws governing racing haven’t changed in more than 30 years. Now four state senators want to update the laws to improve the quality of racing.
On Memorial Day in 1981 a bay colt named Summing won the Pennsylvania Derby at the venue known as the Keystone Race Track. That was the same year that Pennsylvania’s legislature reformed the laws governing horse racing in the state. Summing could hardly have been called a favorite, but the Kentucky-bred colt impressed his owners enough with that race that they decided to enter him in the Belmont. And there Summing made history. He defeated Pleasant Colony, depriving the favorite of the Triple Crown.
Much has changed in horse racing since Summing stormed the gates at Belmont. In few places, though, has racing changed more dramatically than here in Pennsylvania. The quaint Keystone Race Track became Philadelphia Park on its way to becoming Parx, one of the state’s premier racetrack/casinos. In 2004 Pennsylvania’s legislature opened the door to a vastly different horse racing industry when they legalized slot machines. Subsequently, the racing industry has created a system of bonuses and rewards for Pennsylvania-bred horses. Purses have swelled with the influx of dollars to the casinos—where 12 percent of the slot machine revenue goes to the state’s horse racing industry. The casino operators retain 45 cents of every dollar from the slots. Thirty-four percent of every dollar goes to property tax relief for Pennsylvania residents.
In October, four state senators announced plans to take another look at the 1981 Race Horse Industry Reform Act, which has largely remained intact as written for more than 30 years, despite the dramatic changes that have recast horse racing in Pennsylvania. Republicans Elder Vogel of Allegheny, Dominic Pileggi of Delaware, Joseph Scarnati of Jefferson and Robert Tomlinson of Bucks County issued a memorandum on the 15th, seeking support for their efforts to amend the law.
New Structure, New Regulations
According to Mike Rader, Executive Director of the Senate Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, one goal is to eliminate duplication of efforts. “We want to dissolve the racing commissions, and put those functions under the Gaming Control Board,” he explains. Beyond the functional changes, though, Rader says the plan will address other aspects of the state’s racing industry.
“There’s no out of competition drug testing in Pennsylvania,” he says, whereas that is fairly common in other states. He says that in addition to the drug testing, which will add expense to the Gaming Control Board’s budget, the state senators want to enact rules that would prohibit track personnel from receiving gifts from breeders, trainers and others. Rader explains that some of these initiatives would satisfy recommendations from a 2009 Grand Jury investigation into activities at Penn National racetrack in Dauphin County. During that investigation, several witnesses testified that some grooms and at least one trainer at Penn National had been injecting horses with snake venom, and administering concoctions called “milkshakes” to horses. Milkshakes, a combination of several substances including Red Bull energy drink, baking soda, sugar and electrolyte powder, are not permitted for horses within 24 hours of racing. Snake venom is also prohibited.
In addition to the testimony about illegal performance boosters, witnesses told the Grand Jury about gifts of liquor and cash that were made to the racing secretary (who is no longer there) and the racing office staff at the track. “At every track we have racing secretaries and the management at the track who are responsible for writing the race cards,” Rader explains. The racing secretary can decide which trainers would have access to boarding at the track, and which horses will be entered in specific races.
The Grand Jury recommended that the state Racing Commission or Penn National create rules that would prohibit track personnel from accepting gifts from trainers and owners, in addition to developing more assertive drug testing protocols.
Rader says that one of the reasons for updating the 1981 legislation is that the cost of enforcement of regulations is growing faster than the funding for enforcement. “Look at the decline in live handle as the root of this problem,” he says. “In this proposal we are looking at measures that can help the root.”
Market the Industry
Other matters that the senators hope to include in their reform plans would address the issue of marketing and promoting horse racing in Pennsylvania more aggressively. Horse racing was the rationale for development of the casino industry in Pennsylvania; yet it’s hard to find any mention of horse racing in the television and print ads promoting the casinos. The reform would authorize a surcharge on the purses to subsidize marketing the industry. Rader says that they’re hoping the senators’ memo calling for amending the 1981 law will start a conversation among all the stakeholders in the industry. “The gaming act requires that the casinos do indeed market racing. Obviously they have an interest in their entire operation,” he says. He says the intent is to get everybody at the table to make the industry stronger. “Quite honestly, if there’s no enforcement, there’s no racing. If there’s no racing, there’s no casino. Everyone has skin in the game on this one.”
Jeb Hannum, Executive Secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association (PHBA), says that everyone agrees that everyone has a role in improving the industry. “The PHBA welcomes legislation which will improve the quality of racing and the breeders recognize that a well-funded regulatory body is critical to ensure the public's confidence as well as to attract the country's leading trainers and owners to the state.” He says the inadequacies of the existing Racing Act are inhibiting growth. “Unfortunately, the funding model for the Racing Commissions is outdated which has led to a broader discussion as to where the racing industry is best regulated.”
One part of the marketing equation is the possible addition of new ways to increase the handle. Internet wagering is legal in other states, and the four senators are hoping to see if it would benefit Pennsylvania’s racing industry. “Internet wagering is not authorized, but it occurs,” Rader says. “We need to capture the wagers for fairness to make sure that we’re overseeing the industry appropriately.”
There are a lot of threads woven into Pennsylvania’s enormous and successful horse racing industry. Reform may come slowly, but it’s clear that 30 year-old regulations are not adequate for this fast-changing industry. “There is no question the Racing Act needs to be updated and the PHBA looks forward to an ongoing dialogue with the Legislature,” Hannum says.