Lawmakers kick the can on horse racing

Lawmakers kick the can on horse racing

House, Senate pass bill maintaining simulcasting status quo

THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE on Wednesday extended the existing simulcasting system for horse and dog racing for another year, essentially kicking the can down the road on proposals to revamp the regulatory and business framework for thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts.

The legislation, if it is signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, will allow Suffolk Downs to continue simulcasting at its facility even though the property has been sold to a developer. The other simulcasting licenses went to the former dog tracks at Wonderland and Raynham Park and the harness racing facility at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville. With simulcasting, the facilities show horse and dog races from around the country and accept wagers on them, earning a percentage of the take for their role.

Many officials involved with the state’s struggling thoroughbred racing industry had hoped lawmakers would pass legislation this year giving the Massachusetts Gaming Commission oversight of all aspects of horse racing, including simulcasting. Stephen Crosby, the chairman of the commission, said passage of that legislation was needed to allow the agency to explore a variety of options to revive thoroughbred racing.

Some horsemen wanted the Gaming Commission to use casino tax dollars to explore the feasibility of and possibly finance the construction of a horse park in central Massachusetts. Others wanted to see if the Gaming Commission could entice a company to come into Massachusetts and rehab an existing track.

Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which operates tracks in California, Florida, Maryland, and Oregon, was in town earlier this week talking to lawmakers and others about reviving horse racing in Massachusetts. He met with officials at Raynham Park to discuss whether the former dog track there could be converted into a thoroughbred track.

William Lagorio, who heads the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said the Stronach Group is prepared to spend $20 million to $40 million at Raynham Park. But he indicated passage of the status-quo-simulcasting bill would make that difficult, even though Raynham Park has a simulcasting license.

Like they do most years, lawmakers took the simulcasting legislation up at the end of the session and just before the previous year’s law was scheduled to expire. Because inaction would mean simulcasting would end at all the facilities and hundreds of people would lose their jobs, lawmakers whisked the bill through both chambers with no amendments this week.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville said she was withdrawing her amendment to ban simulcasting of dog races from around the country because, even if her proposal passed, there was no time to resolve differences with the House version of the bill. She nevertheless gave a speech condemning simulcasting of dog races partly because the way dogs are treated at tracks around the country and partly because simulcasting runs counter to the ban on dog racing passed by voters in 2008.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

But Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton, who represents Raynham, said voters in 2008 banned live dog racing, not simulcast dog racing. He said a ban on the simulcasting of dog races would cost a lot of people their jobs (he said 150 are employed at the Raynham Park simulcasting facility and 53 percent of the revenue there comes from dog simulcasting) and do nothing to prevent Massachusetts residents from watching dog races.

“People can go online and bet. The only thing the amendment would accomplish would be assuring that there would be no jobs at the facilities doing simulcasting in the Commonwealth,” Pacheco said. “That makes absolutely no sense to me.”