State says Penn’s slots focus is reining in live horse racing

3/13/2013
BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
Fans watch races from Toledo and other tracks on monitors at Raceway Park, which will close next year to ease competition for the casino in East Toledo.
Fans watch races from Toledo and other tracks on monitors at Raceway Park, which will close next year to ease competition for the casino in East Toledo.

COLUMBUS — As Toledo’s Raceway Park prepares to close the paddock for the last time next year, state regulators on Tuesday complained that its proposed replacement in Dayton comes up short on one crucial thing — live horse racing.

Raceway Park owner, Penn National Gaming Inc., is spending $75 million just to ask the Ohio State Racing Commission to move the track’s harness-racing license about 150 miles to the south so that its anticipated slots parlor won’t directly compete with its new 24-hour Hollywood Casino on the Toledo riverfront just 9 miles away.

But the panel’s members questioned whether the new $125 million track Penn plans to build in Dayton and a similar track it plans for the Youngstown area are too focused on slot machines and simulcast racing and too light on the live-horse experience.

Penn has separately asked the Ohio Lottery Commission for approval of licenses for a slots parlor at a reclaimed former industrial site in Dayton and on open space in Austintown near Youngstown, where the license for its current Columbus-area thoroughbred track, Beulah Park, would be moved. There would be 1,500 machines at Dayton for starters and 1,000 at Austintown.

Commissioner Mark Munroe of Mahoning County said the Youngstown area is eager for its facility. But he joined the chorus that there needs to be more of a live-racing experience at a horse-racing track.

“There’s disbelief that somebody would spend $250 million between license fees and relocation fees to build a racetrack and only a couple hundred people can actually sit down and watch a live race,” he said.

The commissioners asked Penn to come back next week with suggestions on how it could increase bleacher seating on fair-weather days and, in particular, indoor seating with good views of the track outside.

An artist's rendering shows what Penn National's Dayton 'racino' will look like. State regulators said they are concerned that more people will miss out on live racing.
An artist's rendering shows what Penn National's Dayton 'racino' will look like. State regulators said they are concerned that more people will miss out on live racing.

Raceway Park has seating for 2,500 but uses just about 400 of that, according to Mark Loewe, vice president of Penn’s Ohio racing operations.

Penn agreed to return with additional information and plans, but John Finamore, the firm’s senior vice president of regional operations, told the commission that time is of the essence. Penn hopes to begin construction of the facilities next month.

“This is an issue of economics,” he said. “We start out with $75 million to relocate each facility, $50 million to license them. … We’re spending $125 million up front to put these facilities in better locations to benefit all of the stakeholders.

“I think that’s an important consideration for you all as we struggle with the economics of then spending an additional $125 million to build out these facilities,” he said, adding, “$125 million before we even put a stick in the ground at each of these facilities makes it a difficult hurdle to clear.”

The commission indicated it will decide as early as March 20 whether it will approve the license transfers. The panel and the racing industry are counting on revenues from the four Las Vegas-style casinos and an increasing number of track slots parlors, or “racinos,” to boost race purses and breathe new life into struggling live horse racing in the state.

With the racinos comes an eventual commitment for 125 days of live racing at the tracks.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.