During the hustle and bustle of the final day of the 2018 legislative session, the Massachusetts legislature thought it passed a bill that would keep horse racing and simulcast racing legal in the state for another year.
They were mistaken.
Even though both chambers passed the bill, H 4809, Tuesday, a procedural snafu kept it from heading to the governor’s desk where it could be signed into law.
And so, on Aug. 1, 2018, horse racing became illegal in the state of Massachusetts.
Emergency session time
Fortunately, horse racing’s illegal status was short-lived.
Lawmakers were able to correct the problem they created during an informal session on Thursday morning, just hours before scheduled races at Plainridge Park were set to begin.
Had they not acted, 90 simulcast employees and over 200 live race workers would have been out of a job, according to Suffolk Downs Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle.
How this became a problem
Unfortunately, these year-by-year extensions have become commonplace in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts is trying to chart its horse racing future, but the future will remain up in the air as long as the state keeps extending the simulcast agreements at Plainridge Park Casino, Raynham Park and Suffolk Downs.
According to the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA) these extensions are keeping the doors of one of the facilities, Suffolk Downs, open. Until the facility closes, a new infusion of horse racing capital is unlikely, the organization argues.
Massachusetts horse racing is in the midst of a revival
It wasn’t long ago that the Massachusetts horse racing industry seemed to be on the verge of its last breath.
In 2001, Massachusetts hosted 1,526 thoroughbred races over 179 racing days. By 2015 there were a total of 36 races across three racing days.
During that time, two of the state’s three tracks became either exclusively or near-exclusively simulcast facilities:
- Raynham Park ceased live racing in 2008.
- Suffolk Downs hosts live races on just three weekends per year after failing to procure one of the state’s casino licenses.
The only active racing facility in the state is the harness racing track, Plainridge Park, which also became the home of Massachusetts’ first casino in 2015.
Casinos have been a boon for racing
Casino gaming has been beneficial to Plainridge Park in two ways.
First, the casino increased foot traffic and created a new revenue stream.
Second, the 2011 Massachusetts law that authorized casinos earmarks 18 percent of the gaming revenue paid to the state for the Race Horse Development Fund. That amounted to $15 million in the last fiscal year.
Local press explained how this infusion of revenue has revitalized racing at Plainridge Park:
“Plainridge Park Casino is running 125 racing days, up from 80; purses have increased from $2.6 million in 2014 to $7.4 million in 2017, the live racing handle has more than doubled to $7.6 million to $18 million, and annual registered yearlings (one-year-old standardbred horses) have increased from 36 to 51.”
The amount in the RHDF is going to balloon when MGM Springfield opens later this month, and Encore Boston Harbor opens in June 2019, as will opportunities for horseracing in the state.
Enter the Stronach Group
Despite Plainridge’s success, thoroughbred racing is still almost non-existent in the state.
One entity, the Stronach Group is hoping to change that.
The Stronach Group originally had its eye on Raynham Park, but the company is now focused on developing a thoroughbred track in Lancaster, a town in north-central MA just outside the Route 495 belt.
Stronach COO Tim Ritvo was in Lancaster for a town hall on Monday night. Ritvo took a lot of questions and concerns from local residents, but before it turns its attention to convincing the town, the Stronach Group will need to convince the state to take action.
The Stronach Group has made it clear from the start, in order to move forward and invest in Massachusetts, Suffolk Downs will need to close.
For that to happen the state would have to rescind its simulcast license (the license it just extended) and pass new legislation.
In 2017, MTHA President Bill Lagorio, told the Statehouse News Service that the hypothetical legislation would need to repeal antiquated racing laws and gives the Massachusetts Gaming Commission broader powers to oversee and distribute the Race Horse Development Fund.
That discussion is ongoing, but for now, Massachusetts lawmakers can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that their gaffe on Tuesday didn’t cause a crisis.