Wednesday, August 27, 2003

State commissioner says slots could save horse industry

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Maine’s agriculture commissioner says the horse industry here is in trouble and needs a major cash infusion to save it – cash that could come from slots at racetracks.

Robert Spear stopped short of contradicting Gov. John Baldacci’s stand against slot machines at racetracks, but said slots are one way the industry could get a much needed bailout.

Spear also suggested that if the statewide referendum on whether to allow slots at racetracks passes Nov. 4, Baldacci might change his mind.

While the referendum question – called “the Bangor bill” because it was proposed by the Bangor Raceway – gives some money to horse owners and trainers, another bill now on Baldacci’s desk – called “the industry bill” because it was proposed by a group from Maine’s horse industry – would give horsemen and women more.

Spear hinted that if the Bangor bill passes with a strong showing, his boss, the governor, might approve the industry bill, which includes permission for slot machines at off-track betting locations as well as racetracks. The two would need to be compromised before either could take effect.

Both dedicate 1 percent of the slots’ take to combat addiction and compulsive gambling.

The Bangor bill gives 75 percent of the take to the operator of the slot machines, 11 percent to help the horse industry, 10 percent to help elderly and disabled people pay for prescription drugs and 3 percent to fund scholarships at state colleges.

The industry bill would send 28 percent of the proceeds from slots at racetracks and OTBs to the state’s general fund and 17 percent to support the horse industry. It does not specifically allocate a percentage to the operators of the machines.

The industry bill also gives 3 percent of the take from slots at Bangor Raceway to the city of Bangor, if Scarborough’s local ban is not overturned.

If the local ban is overturned, however, and slots are installed at both Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs, the two towns would get 5 percent of the tracks’ take. (Scarborough Downs has collected the needed signatures, they say, to put the overturn of the local ban on the November ballot.)

Either bill would be a good beginning to the problems facing Maine’s horse industry, Spear said. “Right now we have a lot of horses leaving the state,” heading to other states with higher racewinners’ purses – some because of slot machines at their tracks.

“We need to find ways to get more purse money into the hands of the horsemen,” he said. The average purse in Maine is around $1,200 a race. In Delaware, where slots at racetracks are allowed, winning a race pays between $3,000 and $5,000, Spear said.

He visited there earlier this year at a meeting of the Northeastern states’ agriculture commissioners, held at Delaware Downs. In addition to a horseracing track, it has a car-racing track, a hotel and a gambling floor. “It looks like a casino,” Spear said.

He was there on a weekend when Delaware Downs had no live racing, but people were there. “The money was coming in through the slot machines. It looked like Las Vegas.”

That cash influx could save racing, he said.

“There’s a lot of history and nostalgia” in the Maine horse industry, he said. A farm census is in progress to gauge the exact size of it, but a University of Maine study commissioned by the Maine Harness Racing Promotion Board in 2000 says the “harness racing industry annually contributes an
estimated $50,724,895 in gross revenue to the state economy.” That includes $27 million in income from outside horse racing, plus $12 million in business spending related to the horse industry and $11.5 million in personal spending by workers in the sector.

“I consider the horse industry very important” to Maine’s economy, Spear said. It also helps Maine’s environment: “It keeps a lot of land open,” especially in Southern Maine.

There are small ways to help the industry, but “until you get some real money out there in the hands of the horsemen” not much will change, Spear said.

Of further concern are actions other states are taking. “I see other states going the route of machines,” Spear said. If they do, Maine’s purses will stay small and horses will leave to make money elsewhere.

A casino also worries Spear. If a casino is approved in November, gamblers may take their money there, cutting tracks’ income even more.

“We’ve got some good breeders in this state. It’s too bad to breed these good horses here and then see them leave the state,” Spear said.