Stag­nant horse rac­ing bet­ting court rul­ing helps the sport

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - SPORTS - By Gary B. Graves Tim Dahlberg AP Sports Colum­nist

LOUISVILLE, KY. » Horse rac­ing has been strug­gling for years to re­gain a strong foot­ing on the na­tional sports land­scape, and own­ers hope to use bet­ting on other sports to bring fans back to the tracks.

The gam­ble is not a sure thing since not ev­ery­one is on board with the Supreme Court’s rul­ing ear­lier this week that al­lows states to of­fer sports bet­ting.

Track own­ers be­lieve horse rac­ing has an ad­van­tage since race tracks in many states will be among the first to al­low sports gam­bling. Many race tracks al­ready of­fer slot ma­chines and ta­ble games — pop­u­larly known as ra­ci­nos — in ad­di­tion to bet­ting on horses.

“The eco­nom­ics of it, we will be­gin to see how it works,” said Stronach Group chief oper­at­ing of­fi­cer Tim Ritvo, whose com­pany owns race tracks through­out the coun­try.

One of those tracks is Pim­lico Race Course in Bal­ti­more, site of Satur­day’s 143rd Preak­ness. The ag­ing track needs an over­haul and Ritvo is hop­ing for a boost from sports bet­ting.

He doesn’t be­lieve sports bet­ting is “go­ing to be this huge wind­fall of money, but it’s an added amenity for a cus­tomer, where he can go to an event like a race track and bet some races and bet some games and watch some games,” Ritvo said. “It be­comes a so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The na­tion’s high­est court ruled 6-3 on Mon­day to strike down the Pro­fes­sional and Am­a­teur Sports Pro­tec­tion Act, a 1992 fed­eral law that had banned sports bet­ting in ev­ery state but Ne­vada and a few oth­ers with lim­ited wager­ing.

Horse rac­ing must over­come stiff po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion in two of the Triple Crown states — Ken­tucky and Mary­land — to take ad­van­tage of the rul­ing.

Ken­tucky is cap­i­tal of thor­ough­bred horses but has no casi­nos.

In­di­ana, Ohio and West Vir­ginia have sev­eral casi­nos and ra­ci­nos sit­ting across the Ohio River. That has sparked crit­i­cism about money leav­ing Ken­tucky, but casino gam­bling hasn’t ad­vanced in re­cent years, and Gov. Matt Bevin is op­posed.

Ken­tucky Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Da­mon Thayer isn’t sure the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion will change minds in his state.

“We’ve got some time to try wrap our heads around it and find out if it’s some­thing we want to do and if so, how to do it,” said the Re­pub­li­can, who ex­pects to hear all sides by the time the leg­is­la­ture con­venes in Jan­uary.

In Mary­land, there is a stale­mate among leg­is­la­tors largely due to dis­agree­ments about who should be al­lowed to have sports bet­ting — casi­nos and/or horse rac­ing tracks. There is a chance le­gal­ized sports bet­ting won’t hap­pen in Mary­land until at least 2020.

Horse rac­ing needs more im­me­di­ate help.

Churchill Downs Inc. wasted lit­tle time tak­ing a step on this new fron­tier. The com­pany an­nounced an agree­ment Wed­nes­day with Golden Nugget At­lantic City to en­ter on­line gam­bling and sports bet­ting in New Jer­sey.

The han­dle, the to­tal of money wa­gered at tracks na­tion­wide, has fallen from $15.18 bil­lion in 2003 to just un­der $11 bil­lion the past seven years. In­dus­try web­site Equibase hasn’t tracked at­ten­dance since the mid-1990s, but it has been drop­ping. Alex Wal­drop, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Na­tional Thor­ough­bred Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, said the sport is “hold­ing its own” fi­nan­cially through all of the bet­ting plat­forms.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baf­fert’s pre­vi­ous Derby win­ner, Amer­i­can Pharoah, cre­ated a buzz three years ago in be­com­ing the sport’s first Triple Crown cham­pion since 1978. It re­mains to be seen if Baf­fert’s colt Jus­tify — the Ken­tucky Derby win­ner and fa­vorite in Satur­day’s Preak­ness — can gen­er­ate sim­i­lar in­ter­est, but that still won’t be enough for Baf­fert.

He be­lieves casino gam­bling could be the way to bring some new fans to the rail. And as casi­nos now look to ex­pand with pro­fes­sional sports books, there’s also a chance to add live race simul­casts.

“You’re now go­ing to see casi­nos, if they don’t al­ready have race and sports books, in­ter­ested in putting those in,” Wal­drop said. “The two are per­fect com­pli­ments and we see them all over Las Ve­gas. Per­haps we’ll see them in com­mer­cial casi­nos, and that would be a boon for horse rac­ing. Any­time we can ex­pand our dis­tri­bu­tion plat­form is a good thing.”

Casino gam­bling is avail­able in 40 states, with horse rac­ing in 32 and 14 with ra­ci­nos.

Many tracks have re­duced races but have re­mained fi­nan­cially solid be­cause slot ma­chines and ta­ble games are more prof­itable.

Bet­tors in­ter­ested in Jus­tify or his challengers in the Preak­ness can bet at ra­ci­nos or tracks with simul­cast wager­ing, on­line in states that al­low it, at sports books in Ne­vada or in states with off-track bet­ting op­tions.

But with New Jer­sey poised to be­gin sports bet­ting within weeks at Mon­mouth Park and other states soon to fol­low, many more op­tions could be avail­able by this fall’s Breed­ers’ Cup cham­pi­onships at Churchill Downs.

SETH WENIG — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, the Golden Nugget Ho­tel and Casino stands in At­lantic City, N.J. The Supreme Court rul­ing ear­lier this week al­lows states to of­fer sports bet­ting. Churchill Downs Inc. wasted lit­tle time tak­ing a step on this new fron­tier. The com­pany an­nounced an agree­ment Wed­nes­day, May 16, with Golden Nugget At­lantic City to en­ter on­line gam­bling and sports bet­ting in New Jer­sey.

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