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The Massachusetts Gaming Commission could put an end to the strife between warring factions within the horse racing community and put the industry on a path to rebound here if the Legislature cedes some control to the commission, its chairman said Tuesday.
Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby pressed lawmakers to approve a bill (S 175) that he said would give the Massachusetts Gaming Commission broader powers to regulate the racing industry and pass regulations — including the assignment of simulcasting rights — they feel are in the best interests of the industry's development.
"Particularly with respect to Thoroughbred racing, if we don't get the tools to bring all the parties together and use the levels of muscle, which are the revenue streams ... then I'm afraid we'll be stuck where we've been for the last umpteen years, which is an internal war in the industry and not being able to come together with a comprehensive strategy," Crosby told the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies.
While standardbred racing has seen a resurgence tied to the slots parlor in Plainville, Thoroughbred racing is near its all-time low in Massachusetts. The Gaming Commission and a splintered set of groups representing horsemen have been trying to find ways that the sport of kings can compete in modern times.
The bill would repeal the existing laws governing horse racing, simulcasting and pari-mutuel wagering and direct the commission to promulgate regulations for the industry "with the object of promoting its efficient operation, and the honesty and integrity of the wagering process related to it."
When lawmakers approved casino gambling in 2011, it charged the newly-formed Gaming Commission with evaluating the laws around horse racing, simulcasting and pari-mutuel wagering and returning to lawmakers with recommended changes. Crosby reminded the committee of that Tuesday.
"The Legislature made the decision long ago that the regulatory environment for horse racing and pari-mutuel betting needed a hard, hard scrub and asked us to take the first cut at what that new regulatory environment should look like," he said. "So we're responding to you all. This is not something that we're just making up."
Chairman Joseph Wagner said he thinks the time for action "is closer at hand than it has been previously," and acknowledged that the Legislature has been slow to take comprehensive action on the horse racing industry.
"I think we all recognize we have kicked the can down on road on it for some good long period of time here and think we need to stop doing that to resolve finally how we're going to move forward and address those issues," Wagner said.
At the end of July, about three days before the current simulcasting licenses were due to expire, the Legislature approved a one-year extension of the current simulcasting laws even while Crosby and others were pushing for more comprehensive legislation (H 9/S 175).
The bill Crosby was pitching Tuesday (S 175) filed by Winthrop Sen. Joseph Boncore would also allow the Gaming Commission to determine the best use of the Race Horse Development Fund, a pot of money that comes from gambling revenues and is mostly used for purses for winning trainers and jockeys. The legislation would still require at least half of the money in the fund to go towards purses.
"Many people in the industry have come to us to ask us to use that money for other things," Crosby said, pegging the fund's balance at somewhere between $13 million and $17 million. "We don't have the authority to do that and we believe it would be very helpful if we had the authority to react to proposals from the industry on other ways to use this money."
One proposed use of the RHDF money came before the Economic Development Committee on Tuesday. Groups aligned with the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (NEHBPA) testified in favor of a bill (S 185) that would direct the Gaming Commission to study the feasibility of constructing a "world-class, year-round horse park" in central Massachusetts.
The NEHBPA has signed a right of first refusal for about 400 acres of land in Warren and a Warren selectman on Tuesday told the committee that the facility would give the rural town "a real shot in the arm." The NEHBPA is also in discussions with officials in Spencer about locating the horse park there.
With the horse park idea in one hand, the NEHBPA announced Tuesday that it has banded together with the company that runs Suffolk Downs and a breeders group to clear the way for a new Thoroughbred horse racing facility in Massachusetts.
Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, which has operated racing and simulcasting at Suffolk Downs since 1992, the NEHBPA and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association (MTBA) announced their partnership Tuesday before the Economic Development Committee hearing and said the plan is dependent on the legislative changes spelled out in Boncore's bill that would allow some money from the Race Horse Development Fund to be used to finance capital improvements at a track.
"We've looked at several options and believe that this is the best path forward to preserve our jobs, our businesses and the thousands of acres of open working space associated with horse racing in the Commonwealth," NEHBPA President Anthony Spadea said in a statement. "We and the Mass Breeders are excited to offer our full support to and to work exclusively with Sterling Suffolk, our partner since 1992, on this initiative."
Sterling Suffolk said that its involvement in a future Thoroughbred track would require a long-term extension for its simulcasting license, an issue that has previously caused friction in the racing community.
"As the Legislature contemplates the future of racing and simulcasting, our company believes that we can create a new thoroughbred racing facility in Massachusetts given the right economic conditions, including a longer-term extension of our racing and simulcast license, so that we have the certainty to invest in a new racing facility in partnership with the NEHBPA and the MTBA," Sterling Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle said in a statement. "We share the horsemen's vision for a year-round, multi-use facility and look forward to working with the Legislative leadership and other stakeholders to pass legislation that would allow thoroughbred racing to continue in Massachusetts."
The Thoroughbred horse racing industry has been on the decline in Massachusetts since at least 2001 when there were 1,526 races over 179 racing days in the state.
In 2015, Massachusetts hosted 36 races across three racing days — down from 560 races across 65 racing days in 2014, according to The Jockey Club, which works to promote Thoroughbred horse racing in the United States. In 2016, Massachusetts hosted 63 races on six racing days. This year, Suffolk Downs hosted a total of eight racing days.
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