Election Aftermath Mixed for Thoroughbred Interests

By T. D. Thornton

In the aftermath of Election Day, the gambling landscape shifted significantly overnight in three states. But the results are mixed in terms of how the measures will affect Thoroughbred horse racing.

In Arkansas, Oaklawn Park won the right to add full casino gaming and sports betting to its existing wagering menu of pari-mutuels and electronic gaming. The vote percentage was 54-46.

In Idaho, historical horse racing (HHR) video gaming at tracks was defeated by a 53-47 margin, putting the state’s already tenuous Thoroughbred future in even more of an endangered flux.

Florida voters banned greyhound racing by a 69-31 margin, with a 2020 sunset date but a provision to keep other forms of gaming at those tracks.

A separate Florida measure that passed by a 71-29 margin mandates that any future changes to casino gambling have to be approved through statewide citizen-initiated ballot measures, and not the Legislature.

All tallies in this story cited are listed in rounded percentages, and are according to results posted as of 2 p.m. Wednesday on Ballotpedia.com.

Arkansas

In Arkansas, the passage of Issue 4 amended the Arkansas Constitution to grant four casino licenses in specified locations. Oaklawn in Hot Springs and the Southland greyhound/gaming venue in West Memphis were granted “automatic licenses” for expansions “at or adjacent to” their existing operations. Both tracks already offer electronic games of skill under a 2005 state law.

Additionally, one casino license will be up for bid in both Pope County and Jefferson County.

As part of the Arkansas measure, “casino gaming shall also be defined to include accepting wagers on sporting events.”

The ballot initiative also included a tax revenue distribution plan that mandates “17.5% to the Arkansas Racing Commission for deposit into the Arkansas Racing Commission Purse and Awards Fund to be used only for purses for live horse racing and greyhound racing by Oaklawn and Southland.”

Idaho

The defeated Proposition 1 was designed to once again legalize HHR video terminals at tracks in Idaho, where seven fairs circuit tracks raced short meets in 2018. The measure would have granted HHR gaming rights to any track that cards eight calendar dates annually, and passage would almost certainly have meant the re-opening of Les Bois Park, formerly Idaho’s only commercial track.

Idaho had briefly legalized HHR in 2013 but the law was repealed in 2015. When the state pulled the plug on HHR, Les Bois, which was one of three locations that had the machines, shut down. Les Bois spent heavily to support Proposition 1, and reportedly had several hundred HHR machines still on the property ready to resume operation, along with live racing.

Florida

Florida’s two approved ballot measures might end up raising more questions than they answered in an already confusing state for gambling.

The Amendment 13 ban on dog racing actually had the support of some of the state’s 11 greyhound track operators, who saw it as a de facto way of attaining “decoupling” from less-profitable pari-mutuels while retaining lucrative gaming rights.

Some “What happens next?” scenarios could include horse tracks angling for similar decoupling rights based on this precedent. And with greyhound racing mandated to end, animal rights activists might now more closely focus on horse racing.

Carey Theil, the executive director of GREY2K USA, one of the leading backers of the ban, told the Orlando Sentinel that the vote appears to mean the greyhound industry will likely be “swept away in the night” and that “the historical consequences of this are incredibly significant.”

Amendment 3, which took control of future casino gambling decisions out of the hands of the Legislature, was proposed by Voters in Charge, a political committee largely financed by the tourism-centric Walt Disney Co. and the Seminole Tribe, which operates existing gaming facilities. According to published reports, that committee spent more than $31 million on the effort to transfer future casino decisions to voters.

According to a post-vote analysis in the Tampa Bay Times, “While the amendment, in theory, gives voters the power to expand gambling, it could actually make the process more difficult. Changing anything by voter decision is a long process, and would therefore keep competition low for the Seminole Tribe and ensure a more ‘family friendly’ tourism environment here, to Disney’s benefit.”

The Miami Herald recapped the vote this way: “Opponents to the amendment—like NFL teams, online betting sites like FanDuel and DraftKings and dog and horse tracks—have argued that it is unclear what affect the initiative would have on previously authorized gambling sites across the state.”

United States Congress

Two U.S. Representatives in positions to have an impact on Thoroughbred racing both won re-election bids Nov. 6.

Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) are co-chairs of the Congressional Horse Caucus. They are also co-sponsors of HR 2651, the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2017, which was first introduced in a different form in 2015. Its revised version has not had any legislative action since a June 22 subcommittee hearing.

Barr won by a 51-48 margin. Tonko’s winning margin was 68-32.

Lexington Mayor

Linda Gorton bested Ronnie Bastin by a 63-37 margin in the Lexington, Kentucky, mayoral race.

In a profile published the week prior to the election, Gorton told TDN that “I have a long history of working with the equine industry here. I know many of the horse farm owners and managers. I understand their concerns…. That’s important for me, to have people understand that I have worked with this industry for many, many years, and have great experience in doing that.”

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Jed Doro Named Director of Racing at Oaklawn

October 6, 2018

Oaklawn announced today the hiring of Jerome “Jed” Doro as Director of Racing. Jed will start the week of September 24.

Doro comes to Oaklawn from Delaware Park where he has spent the last 10 years. He was named that track’s Racing Secretary in 2014 after serving as Assistant Racing Secretary to Pat Pope, who is also Oaklawn’s longtime Racing Secretary. Doro had previously assisted Pope with Oaklawn condition books and he served as Assistant Director of Racing during the 2014 race season. Doro, who has several family members in racing, got his start working as a hot walker in 1998 in the barn of trainer Tony Dutrow. His first job in a racing office came at Colonial Downs and he held a variety of positions at the Maryland Jockey Club including claims clerk and paddock judge before moving to Delaware Park.

“We’re delighted to have Jed and welcome him back as a member of the Oaklawn family,” General Manager Wayne Smith said. “Jed’s background and experience will be a great addition as we continue to grow racing at Oaklawn. His hiring continues to strengthen an already great racing team. We couldn’t be more excited about our program as we move closer to racing in 2019. Remember, Stay Until May!”

“I couldn’t be more thrilled about getting back to Hot Springs and reacquainting myself with the track and horsemen,” Doro said. “I really enjoyed my time there in 2014 and it’s amazing how much the program has grown over the last few years. I’m looking forward to helping to continue that growth into the future. Oaklawn is one of the top racetracks in the country and one that is steeped in tradition. I’m honored to be part of the team.”

Doro and his wife, Tiffany, have two daughters, Dulaney and Baden.

The 2019 live season at Oaklawn begins Friday, Jan. 25 and runs through Saturday, May 4.

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Oaklawn Park to Extend 2019 Meet Three Weeks

Oaklawn Park 2019 meet will run through first Saturday in May.

 

Oaklawn Park plans to make the most significant change to its racing schedule since World War II.

The Arkansas oval is a momentum-driven meet that traditionally runs its biggest race, the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), on closing day. But in 2019, Oaklawn will open Jan. 25 and run through May 4, three weeks after the Arkansas Derby. Other than 1945, when the track had to postpone its season until the fall because of wartime restrictions, Oaklawn has traditionally concluded its racing season with the Arkansas Derby in mid-April.

Late April 11, the Arkansas Racing Commission unanimously approved Oaklawn’s request to race 57 days in 2019, a dramatic philosophical shift for a track that prides itself on the status quo. Oaklawn’s new schedule pushes its start date two weeks later than normal and end date three weeks later than normal, meaning dates for the Hot Springs, Ark., oval will conflict, or further conflict, with venues that normally receive its horses following the meet’s conclusion.

“Frankly, it’s all about the weather,” said Oaklawn President Louis Cella, whose family has owned Oaklawn for more than a century. “We wanted to make sure that was right for the city of Hot Springs. This was not just a one-dimensional decision, just for Oaklawn. This is for our horsemen. We hear it all the time over the years. Can we get out of January?”

Oaklawn was scheduled to race 57 days this year, but it lost two dates in January to winter weather. Over the last decade, Oaklawn has lost 14 days in January due to winter weather.

“I love it,” trainer Mac Robertson said of the new schedule. “I hate January racing. January is just a hard month to train in Arkansas. Now, they’ll even get better horses coming in.”

Cella said the new schedule, which was endorsed by the Arkansas division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, had been discussed for “every bit of three years,” adding his late father, Charles, was aware of the talks. Charles Cella, known for being fiercely independent, was Oaklawn’s president from 1968 until his death in December.

Louis Cella said talk of the new dates began to intensify last summer. But word of a potential change didn’t begin to leak out until late March.

“It has been a secret, and we tried to keep it internally,” Cella said. “However, there are no secrets at a racetrack. I was walking through the grandstand last week and I had two fans come up to me, slapping me on the back, congratulating me with the new schedule.”

Asked if the new dates open the possibility of installing a turf course or reviving 2-year-old racing for the first time since the 1970s, Cella said, “No and No.”

“But I never want to cut it off and say ‘No,’ definitively,” Cella said. “But that’s not on the radar. That’s not something we’ve discussed, nor is this a decision that we’ve made in anticipation of that.”

David Longinotti, Oaklawn’s director of racing, said the new schedule will not change the placement of the Arkansas Derby, which will continue to be run three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, or the normal Thursday-Sunday racing format.

Oaklawn has run the Arkansas Derby three weeks before the Kentucky Derby every year since 1996. It had previously been two weeks before the Run for the Roses. Now, Oaklawn’s 2019 season will end on Kentucky Derby Day.

At this time, Longinotti said he doesn’t envision any plans to alter the 3-year-old stakes schedule for males or females.

“My guess is, if I were a gambling man, I’d probably put the Smarty Jones (Stakes, G3) on opening day, and then progress from there with our 3-year-old series,” Longinotti said. “We still have 57 days to cover. We’ve got one more weekend to cover than we did this year, 15 weekends instead of 14. Lots of meetings between Sunday and probably late June and early July.”

“This is going to be great for racing and great for Arkansas,” Arkansas Racing Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong said. “I applaud Mr. Cella and Oaklawn for thinking outside the box. This is proof again of their commitment to quality racing.”

Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Board (HBPA) members agreed.

“We are essentially trading January race days, when there is always the chance of cancellation due to weather, for April race dates, when Arkansas weather is at its finest,” said board member Bill Walmsley, who has served as national president of the organization. “The later closing should be an additional enticement to the top racing stables to come to Arkansas, and continuing to race following the Arkansas Derby will keep the excitement for racing going another three weeks.”

Linda Gaston, President of the Arkansas HBPA Chapter, said the shift will create more exciting days of racing.

“This makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “Oaklawn is one of the top tracks in America with some of the richest purses. It stands to reason that showcasing racing in the best possible weather will benefit the entire program. Our board supported this plan unanimously.”

The change to the racing calendar will also have an impact on the economy for Hot Springs and Central Arkansas, according to Gary Troutman, President of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Metro Partnership.

“Oaklawn has always been one of the pillars of our economy,” Troutman said. “This change to the racing schedule will greatly enhance our local businesses that rely on racing fans coming to town.”

Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, agreed. “Oaklawn continuing to race after the Arkansas Derby should be a major bonus to the tourism business in our area,” he said. “The weather is always better in April and May than it is in early January, and that will mean larger crowds at Oaklawn. This means more visitors at our hotels and restaurants, so it’s a win-win.”

Oaklawn will maintain its regular Thursday—Sunday schedule. In addition, it will race Presidents’ Day, Feb. 18. The Arkansas Derby, which has become one of the most productive Triple Crown prep races over the last 15 years, will be run April 13.

“Arkansas Derby Day will still be the pinnacle of the season,” Cella said. “But now, live racing at Oaklawn will also be part of the Kentucky Derby experience three weeks later, when our racing fans will be able to cheer on the horses representing them in Louisville.”

Oaklawn has never hesitated to try new things. In the 1970s, Oaklawn founded the Racing Festival of the South, whose multi-stakes card format has been copied by numerous racetracks. In the ’90s, Oaklawn was the first track to implement full-card commingled simulcasting, which is now a staple around the world. At the turn of the 21st century, Oaklawn created Instant Racing, which eventually led to the creation of Electric Games of Skill and 18 consecutive seasons of purse increases.

Based on traditional dates of other tracks, Oaklawn’s new schedule means it will overlap with Keeneland‘s entire spring meet, the first week of Churchill Downs, and a handful of days at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie and Prairie Meadows.

Trainer Will VanMeter has wintered at Oaklawn every year since going out on his own in 2013, but he also has strong ties to Keeneland.

VanMeter grew up in Lexington—his father Tom is a prominent Kentucky sales consigner and equine veterinarian—and has permanent stabling in Keeneland’s Rice Road barn area.

“We had to beg, borrow, and steal just to get a foothold there,” said VanMeter, a former assistant under Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “We don’t want to lose it.”

VanMeter said it will be difficult to predict how things will shake out until the new schedule is run for the first time.

“I think it’s going to affect everybody on an individual basis because every individual trainer, owner, (and) jockey have different goals, different desires to compete at different jurisdictions,” VanMeter said. “Us personally, Keeneland and Oaklawn are the two places that we want to compete and have a presence at. We’re going to find a way to satisfy both those desires.”

VanMeter’s biggest client is Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, who has campaigned Eclipse Award winners Temperence Hill, Vanlandingham, and Prairie Bayou. VanMeter is scheduled to receive his first horse for another prominent Arkansas owner, Frank Fletcher, when the Oaklawn meeting ends Saturday.

“I think the future of racing is very strong in both places,” VanMeter said. “We want to grow our business through people that want to compete at Oaklawn and people that want to compete at Keeneland. We’re going to find a way to make it work.”

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Wiggins Named Integrity Officer for Oaklawn Park

Former trainer will assume the role for 2018 season.

 

Oaklawn Jockey Club has named Hal Wiggins, one of the most respected horsemen and racing officials in the Midwest, to the newly created position of Racing Integrity Officer.

In this new position, Wiggins will serve as a liaison between Oaklawn Management, the Board of Stewards and key Arkansas Racing Commission staff, working to ensure Oaklawn’s racing program is conducted at the highest standards.

“The Oaklawn family is excited to announce Hal Wiggins as our Integrity Officer, a newly created position designed just for an individual such as he, who has the knowledge, experience and respect of his fellow horsemen,” Louis Cella, Oaklawn’s vice-president, said. “We strive to be forward thinking in all things racing and this is another example of our commitment to integrity.”

Arkansas Racing Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong agrees. “This sends an additional message that Oaklawn takes the integrity of the sport very seriously,” said Lieblong said. “I applaud them for creating this position and I applaud them for hiring Hal. I don’t think you could have asked for a better person. He’s been in racing a long time and knows when something doesn’t smell right. He also has a good way of communicating. If you can’t get along with Hal, then something else is wrong.”

For more than 30 years Wiggins was a successful horsemen, best known as the original trainer of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, who won both Oaklawn’s 2009 Martha Washington and Fantasy Stakes while under his care. Other top runners include multiple stakes winner Chorwon, Morris Code, Cielo Gold and Leo’s Gypsy Dancer.  In recent years, he has worked as a Steward as well as serving on the Board of Directors of the Texas Thoroughbred Association and as President of the Paddock Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to Thoroughbred aftercare.

“I don’t think Oaklawn could have found a better person to work with the horsemen in protecting the integrity of our sport,” Arkansas H.B.P.A. President Linda Gaston said.  “Hal’s a horseman first and we know he’ll do a wonderful job in this new position.”

“My hat is off to Oaklawn for creating this position,” Wiggins said. “The Oaklawn operation has a splendid national reputation and I’m honored to have the opportunity to be a part of it.  This is a new position, and we’ll all be learning together. But, I’m convinced we can make a difference, for the horsemen and the fan.  I’m really looking forward to it.”

Oaklawn opens for the 2018 live season Friday, Jan. 12 and the 57-day meet continues through Saturday, April 14. For more information, visit www.oaklawn.com.

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