Peach of an Idea - by Mike Mullaney

(Originally published in the October 30, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Mike MullaneyBarely audible amidst the din of the nattering nabobs of negativity are warming words of enthusiasm for Thoroughbred racing and pari-mutuel wagering.

Making those optimistic words especially heartening is the fact that they are coming from, of all people, politicians, from of all places, the great state of Georgia.
And, interestingly, no one in the Peach State is shouting them down.

J.B. Powell has been a state senator since 2004 and, as the Democratic nominee, has his sights set on the office of State Agriculture Commissioner. A cattleman and farmer, he has a reputation of being conservative and pro-business. He has no personal or familial ties to the Thoroughbred industry, yet he has fully embraced racing, which is legal in Georgia, and pari-mutuel wagering, which will require a constitutional amendment to become legal.

While Dem. Powell has made the issue a keystone to his campaign, it was a Republican who has so far made the deepest inroads in Atlanta. Last year, Rep. Harry Geisinger received approval to conduct hearings before a bipartisan study committee in the House of Representatives. Also on the committee that Geisinger chaired were three other Republicans and a Democrat. The committee’s report recommended the state pass legislation allowing pari-mutuel wagering.

Toward that end, this winter Geisinger will propose legislation for a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would allow pari-mutuel wagering. If it passes the General Assembly with a two-thirds vote, secondary (“enabling”) legislation will be proposed detailing how the Georgia Racing Commission will set up and operate the business of racing and wagering.

 The Commissioner of Agriculture will not have a vote on the proposed amendment, but it would be good for racing fans in Georgia if they had a friend in that office.

The American Horse Council’s survey of neighboring Florida provides the talking points: According to the AHC, the horse industry there has a $2 billion economic impact and is directly or indirectly responsible for 20,000 jobs.

It would follow that Georgia, proponents says, with half of Florida’s population, would benefit $1 billion annually while adding 10,000 names to the tax roles.

“Most of those jobs would be in agriculture, so, yes, it’s an agricultural issue,” Powell said.

He also cites an AHC study that said Atlanta, which is on I-75 and sits snuggly on that interstate between Lexington and Ocala, Fla., ranks behind only those two cities in terms of horse ownership.

Looking beyond the imposing first step of amending his state’s constitution, Powell’s exuberance led to a courting call to Breeders’ Cup Ltd. last month.

“Georgia has hosted major sporting events including the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the World Series, and would be a perfect location for one of the biggest horse racing events of the year,” he said.

The possibilities of quality racing in Georgia are intriguing, especially as it’s a grassroots movement, gaining momentum even as such powerful native or adoptive sons of Atlanta, such as Cot Campbell and John Fort, have yet to put both feet in the waters.

And what of that other noted Atlantan, the billionaire magnate who decades ago took the lowly Braves, made them the star of his fledgling TV enterprise, and turned them into America’s (baseball) team?

Ted Turner has never shown much interest in the sport, at least not as a prospective racehorse owner, but imagine what he and his TNT might do for racing if he were exposed and properly romanced to the possibilities of ADWs and simulcasting?

Powell said, “Right now the economic benefits travel from Kentucky and the Northeast, through Georgia and into Florida, and vice versa. In no way does Georgia benefit from that traffic, but if we legalize pari-mutuel wagering, we can capture much of that revenue. It would be an immediate boost to the rural economy here.”

The possibility of making bets on Georgia racing is years away, but the prospects are intriguing.

Where would the racetrack(s) be?

Atlanta, with its population and its location (nestled between America’s two major breeding capitals, the Lexington area in Kentucky and Marion County in northern Florida) would be an obvious choice.

Charming Savannah, sitting atop I-95 along the seaboard, may come closest to providing a Del Mar-type feel for Easterners.

It could lead to a peachy future.

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