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Published: Wednesday, 5/20/2009

Horsemen rally for slots at tracks, claim industry down to wire

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - For Toledo harness driver Craig Wolfe, Ohio has nothing to lose by taking a gamble with slot machines at racetracks.

"With the economy the way it is now, it's really crushing us. Without getting the slots, I don't see how [the racing industry] can survive,'' he said as he rallied at the Statehouse with roughly 400 harness drivers, horse owners, breeders, farmers, track employees, and others dependent on Ohio's horse-racing industry.

They're betting the state's worsening budget woes will make lawmakers more receptive to a plan pushed by the Ohio Racing Commission to authorize up to 2,000 slot machines at each of the state's seven tracks, including Toledo's Raceway Park.

Each track would pay a $50 million licensing fee for the privilege, plus half the profit from the machines to the state.

"Governor, get off your moral high horse and get on a thoroughbred. Get behind the sulky on a good Ohio harness-bred, and lead the way to an economic recovery in this state,'' said Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), one of the loudest voices in the General Assembly in favor of racetrack slots.

The Democratic governor, however, wasn't ready to mount either horse.

"I think the people of our state have spoken on this issue clearly multiple times, and until the people change their minds, I'm supporting what I believe to be the will of the people of Ohio,'' he said.

The racing commission has submitted a plan that it insists will not require voter approval. The plan would introduce "video lottery terminals'' as an extension of the Ohio Lottery; it already has won voter approval to help fund K-12 education.

Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said he knows of no plan in his chamber to insert gambling into the budget.

But he said he could support a separate legislative initiative putting the question to voters again.

Tom Smith, public policy director for the Ohio Council of Churches and a staunch gambling opponent, said he's suspicious of language House Democrats added to their version of the budget calling for a study into the economic viability of the racetracks.

He said he fears the language could be amended to authorize slot machines by a six-member House-Senate conference committee that ultimately will craft the budget compromise.

"Trying to slip it in the back door without hearings, giving people a chance to oppose it, or holding legislators accountable, is a bad idea,'' he said.

The racing industry argues that the lack of slot revenue has placed Ohio tracks at a competitive disadvantage with those in neighbors such as West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana that use it to enhance race purses.

"We're racing for less money now than we were 10 years ago. Indiana's bottom purse is $4,500, and our bottom purse is $1,300,'' said Chris Short, an Archbold harness driver and horse owner.

Racing Commissioner Jerry Chabler, a Strickland appointee from Sylvania, supports the slots proposal, although he did not attend the rally.

"Unfortunately, the horse-racing industry is on life support,'' he said. "I look upon this and other alternative gaming initiatives as being strictly an economic development issue. We're talking about an industry that provides 15,000 to 16,000 jobs and half a billion dollars in economic impact to Ohio.''

The racetrack-only plan is separate from a much broader proposal to permit as many as 83,300 slot machines at racetracks, bars, private clubs, and charitable bingo operations and from a proposed ballot issue in November that would authorize four casinos at specific sites in Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

Raceway Park has two horses in this race. Track owner Penn National Gaming is also one of the two primary backers of the casino effort.

If both casinos and racetrack slots are approved, there could be 2,000 slots at Raceway Park just nine miles from the proposed casino site along the Maumee River on property abutting Rossford and I-75.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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