Will A Bill To Resume Horse Racing In PA Cross The Finish Line?

Written By Kevin Shelly on May 26, 2020
New Bill could reopen horse racing in PA

Late-breaking news update: A meeting between Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and members of horseman’s groups is set for Thursday, PlayPennsylvania learned exclusively.

When can horse racing resume in Pennsylvania? Even the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission hasn’t a clue.

That’s not because they haven’t asked PA Gov. Wolf. Wolf suspended racing right along with casino operations in mid-March to stem the onslaught of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

There isn’t a target date for racing to resume in PA yet.

Commission endorses bill to resume racing

Today, the commission even endorsed a House bill that seeks to require the resumption of racing. The bipartisan-sponsored bill — 2544 — passed out of committee by a vote of 16-9 on Tuesday.

Update: Later in the day, the bill was approved by the full PA House. A second vote is set for Wednesday. The bill, which requires three affirmative votes, could be approved again on Thursday. If it is, managers in the House will request a companion bill for PA Senate approval.

The sponsor, orchardist Republican Barry Jozwiak, who has horse breeders and farms in his Berks County district, said he’s concerned with the economic impact on the industry with no racing income.

He also pointed to the astonishing multimillion-dollar handles pulled in at US tracks that have continued safely racing with virus mitigation protocols in place. The popularity of online horse betting has only increased during the crisis.

PA border states moving to resume racing, not yet in PA

Jozwiak also mentioned that PA border states, including New York, where the virus outbreak was vast, are either racing again already or have resumption plans in place.

Support from the racing commission pleased Jozwiak, a retired sheriff.

Not yet, Wolf told the racing commission, when asked about resumption. Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding chairs the commission.

Specifically, Wolf wrote the commission on May 12:

“We foresee horse racing reopening when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (casinos, theaters, etc).”

Wolf has not discussed racing with safety protocols

His response did not explain why he’s lumped tracks without spectators in with casinos and theaters, and he has offered no further guidance beyond his Phase Green designation in the state’s reopening plan.

PlayPennsylvania profiled jockey Tara Hynes, who has previously ridden at Parx and Penn National in Pennsylvania but has continued safely racing elsewhere using safety protocols. She provided a perspective on just why, with easy-to-apply safety provisions, there’s little to no increased risk in continuing racing.

But the Wolf administration has shown no inclination to resume racing using safety protocols.

Promise of a meeting, but no date set

Meanwhile, the horse industry promises to meet with the Wolf administration, though, that’s not yet scheduled, said Pete Peterson, leader of the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, which is supporting the reopening bill.

The racing commission staff told its members there are active discussions of restarting tracks without casinos open. The state’s three thoroughbred and three harness tracks each link to a casino. Also discussed was how to do that since purse money is largely underwritten by a cut of land-based casino slot revenue.

There was also a brief discussion of holding off paying some racing money transfers until all casinos are operating once again.

PA could be last in the stakes to resume as distrust lingers

Animosity remains between the horse community and Wolf and his administration, including Redding.

Wolf touched off the bad feelings. He announced in February that he planned to take $204 million annually from a trust fund earmarked for horse breeding and racing.

That proposal has seemed to stall out with other budget demands taking precedence in the current crisis.  But it’s still one more grave concern among a community that has suffered from lack of racing and casino revenue for over two months and counting.

The next racing commission meeting is June 30.

If there is no resumption of racing before that date, PA will finish last in the region.

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Written by
Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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