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.
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.”
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Idaho had briefly legalized HHR in 2013 but the law was repealed in 2015.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’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.
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.”