Leave horse race fund for the horses

Pot of gambling money is working as intended – for harness racing

IT’S BUDGET SEASON at the Massachusetts State House and once again this year there have been some efforts to raid the Race Horse Development Fund to help address the state’s revenue shortfall. Proponents of this step argue that horse racing is a fading industry in Massachusetts and that gaming revenue placed in the fund could be better spent elsewhere.

What this argument fails to recognize, however, is that while the thoroughbred industry has fallen on hard times, harness racing is thriving in the Commonwealth. In fact, this April marked the beginning of this year’s 125-day racing season, which represents a 56 percent increase in race cards over 2014, the year after purse payments funded by the Race Horse Development Fund began. Since that time, annual live racing wagers have increased by over $10 million, live daily average wagers have increased by over $60,000, and annual simulcast wagering has increased by more than $3 million. These are hardly the statistics of an industry in decline.

When it comes to harness racing, the Race Horse Developoment Fund is accomplishing the exact goals it set out to achieve: growing an industry, creating jobs and revenue, and preserving open space. The return on the state’s $7 million investment last year alone was substantial. In 2016, harness horsemen directly employed 566 workers and issued 1,632 occupational licenses for everything from trainers to veterinarians, jockeys to stable employees, and blacksmiths, breeders and track workers. These are the types of good paying, blue-collar jobs that have been fleeing Massachusetts in recent years and are still so desperately needed for our economy.

The fund’s stable and predictable revenue stream has encouraged more breeders to invest and expand in Massachusetts. The number of Massachusetts-based breeders has increased from 56 to 72 in the last three years alone and we can now count over 40 harness horse farms across Massachusetts. Broodmare standing in Massachusetts has also increased from 40 in 2014 to 111 in 2016, resulting in a significant influx of new revenue for farms and related industries.

Larger purses are also attracting better horses and more high-profile events to Massachusetts. This July, for instance, Plainridge Park Casino will host the inaugural Spirit of Massachusetts race day, a major event for Massachusetts-bred horses featuring a $250,000 open trot for the best horses in the world.

Even our racing venue, Plainridge Park Casino, is redoubling its commitment. This past year, they completed a major race paddock renovation, built a new ship-in barn, and installed a state of the art infield video display and new outdoor trackside seating. This year, they will begin work on an outdoor concession area and new infield fencing. Eliminating the Race Horse Development Fund just as our industry is beginning to thrive would bring untold uncertainty and dissuade further investment by Plainridge, horse breeders, and horsemen and women alike.

While Massachusetts could never compete with the likes of Kentucky or Dubai as a thoroughbred racing destination, we have a real opportunity to become one of the premier harness racing states in the region. Plainridge competes with 22 other harness tracks in the northeast and continues to rank well below competitors in terms of average purse per race card and total purses awarded, despite racing more days than most of their competitors. A strong and consistent investment by the Commonwealth will help us to become an industry leader.

Meet the Author

Robert McHugh

President, Harness Horseman's Association of New England
Meet the Author

Edward Nowak

President, Standardbred Owners of Massachusetts
Massachusetts has a long and successful track record of supporting and encouraging the growth of local industries. Admittedly, harness racing doesn’t have the cache of biotech or life sciences. But if the state is serious about protecting blue-collar jobs, preserving open space, and growing local businesses, continued support for the Race Horse Development Fund is a wise investment. As legislators continue debating this issue in the coming months, we urge them to maintain this critical funding.

Robert McHugh is the president of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England and Edward Nowak is the president of the Standardbred Owners of Massachusetts.