States of Confusion - By Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the February 6, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)      

The road to the Triple Crown trail has begun, and in less than three months, all eyes will be focused on Louisville, Ky., May 1…then Baltimore, Md., May 14, and Elmont, N.Y., June 5.

The eyes of owners and breeders, however, have been focused on Kentucky, Maryland, and New York for years now, and their vision is blurred by the lunacy known as politics.

It was announced last week that Gov. David Paterson and leaders of the New York legislature have chosen Aqueduct Entertainment Group to operate the video lottery casino at Aqueduct.

It took lawmakers in New York nearly 10 years to make a decision. Well, it only took seven years (1920-1927) to build the Holland Tunnel, which runs underneath the Hudson River and connects Manhattan with New Jersey.

More important is the statistic that the state of New York has been losing an estimated $1 million a day by not having slots at Aqueduct. You can do the math to figure out what the contribution to the state coffers would have amounted to had the politicians taken “only” five years to make a decision rather than 10. Every day that has passed, not only has the state not profited, but horsemen, breeders, and the racetracks in New York have struggled while competing states have benefited from slots-rich purses and breed incentive funds.

There are still contingencies that must be met by members of the Aqueduct Entertainment Group, and it must obtain legislative approval before the contract may be awarded, which means that based on the past 10 years of legal wrangling, we are still a long way from someone actually playing slots in Queens.

We may be happy that after 10 years a decision has been made, but we will hold off on the actual celebration until horsemen actually reap any benefits.

The picture in Kentucky, painted poignantly by news editor Tom LaMarra (see page 542 of the February 6, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse), is dire, and as in New York, getting more so by the day. As an editor, when someone asks for a deadline, the stock answer is “yesterday.” Well, whether you like alternative gaming or not, Kentucky needed it yesterday.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, not so much a proponent of alternative gaming as a supporter of the breeding and racing industries, has included revenue from video lottery terminals in his new budget. The move is a clever ploy by the governor, who can point to the fact more programs will have to be cut if members of the legislature do not approve an alternative gaming measure during the current session.

Slots in Kentucky have been debated for 15 years, yet the state’s signature industry continues to suffer because of the inaction by its elected officials. Only in Kentucky could the politicians make the 10 years it has taken New York to make a decision seem like a short time.

Lawsuits, foreclosures, layoffs, and bankruptcies are happening, and while it may be easy to blame the economy, the blame really lies with the Republican-led Senate in Kentucky.

Maryland’s breeding industry has been in a steady state of decline as well, and its racing product has suffered mightily, with horsemen understandably preferring to run in nearby states with larger pots infused with slots money (Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia).

In December the Anne Arundel County Council approved a zoning measure allowing slot machines at the Arundel Mills Mall, but it also passed a measure that allows slots at Laurel Park.

The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel and Pimlico, opposes the plan for slots at the mall, and is in support of a proposal to let voters decide if the mall is what they had in mind in 2008 when they approved slots to support the Thoroughbred industry.

We anxiously await spring and the running of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes (all gr. I). But owners, breeders, horsemen, and racetracks in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York need more than the Triple Crown races to survive. They need immediate legislative help.

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