PA Pony Roundup: Bly Scholarship Gains ‘No Traction’ As Horse Fund Closes Strong Down the Stretch

Written By Kevin Shelly on June 22, 2021

According to the legislation’s chief sponsor, a pet proposal to create a scholarship program for Pennsylvania university students has died. The proposal died even though the administration gave up on tapping the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund as the financial source for Nellie Bly scholarships.

“It is not gonna happen this year,” state Senator Wayne Fontana said during an exclusive interview with PlayPennsylvania as he drove to Harrisburg Monday morning. “I don’t see any traction.”

Déjà vu all over again for the Bly scholarship

Gov. Tom Wolf first proposed the scholarships two years ago. The plan included using money from a trust fund belonging to the PA horse industry.

That version of the proposal quietly fizzled out despite Wolf barnstorming for support that never coalesced.

This year Wolf has had little to say about his second run for the roses.

New Bly proposal exiled to committee

Fontana had first expressed doubts about the proposal’s passing in April, telling PlayPennsylvania that any proposal tapping the horse fund, which comes from a 10% set aside from land-based casino slots, was “not gonna fly.”

The governor’s office has not responded to a request for comment on the proposal’s chances.

The new version of the Bly proposal was introduced on June 7 without any support from Republicans. It is exiled to the Senate Education Committee. And it will remain there as the Legislature focuses on a budget ahead of the summer recess.

Bly not the only education issue

Meanwhile, the state’s university system is facing the prospect of closures or consolidation as enrollment declines. Fontana said he doubts there is the appetite to legislatively deal with both educational issues in one session.

And meanwhile, community colleges are now clambering into the discussion, looking for more funding support for the PA State System of Higher Education, said Fontana.

The state is momentarily awash in money, the senator pointed out.

PA has a $3 billion surplus, plus $7 billion in unspent Federal aid, both because of the virus. And yet the new version of the bill contains no funding source.

“Let them figure it out,” Fontana said of the governor and the legislature.

“It is the governor’s play if he doesn’t want to find another way,” other than tapping the racing fund, said Fontana.

Fontana said the Bly proposal is dead for now as the Legislature focuses on passing the budget.

But the senator added that he’s not going to give up, even if it means waiting another year.

Pony people remain mistrustful of Wolf

Pete Peterson, a spokesman for the PA racing industry, said his constituency remains leary. Wolf’s term ends in January 2023.

The horsemen remain worried the Bly scholarship gets through with funding from some other means for a year or two but then the racing fund could be a target as a money source down the line.

Baffert casts a dark shadow on racing

A Washington Post analysis of tainted Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert uncovered shocking stats hiding in plain sight.

The June 18 story revealed:

At least 74 horses have died in Baffert’s care in his home state of California since 2000, more than all but two of hundreds of trainers in the state, according to a Post analysis of data and public records. But when factoring in the number of races run, Baffert’s horses have died at the highest rate of the 10 trainers who have had the most horse deaths.

In more than four decades in the sport, Baffert has faced significant regulatory scrutiny because of a high death rate only once, after seven of his horses collapsed in a short period of time at the same California track. State investigators found that his staff was mixing a potentially dangerous prescription drug into the feed of every horse in his care. But a top veterinary official cleared Baffert, finding that the spate of deaths “remains unexplained” following a probe that demonstrated the hazards of going after Baffert. Among them, according to interviews and records obtained by The Post: a push to have the veterinary official removed from office, supported by a trade group with Baffert among its directors.

Shielded by clout?

The Post continued:

Baffert also has wielded unmatched clout when regulators have discovered banned or excessive substances in his horses. Before his Kentucky Derby-winning colt, Medina Spirit, tested positive for betamethasone last month — which could erase the victory — his horses were cited for drug-related violations 29 times, according to the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI). But until now, those violations, some of which Baffert has succeeded in getting overturned or reduced, have resulted in roughly $20,000 in fines against $321 million in career earnings. Baffert’s lawyers have made explicit that he will accept fines but not a suspension, and state regulators have continually obliged him.

Baffert declined to answer questions posed by WaPo.

His record casts a pall over all of thoroughbred racing.

Bloodhorse takes notice of Post story

Industry bible Bloodhorse noted the Post story in an unbylined piece:

The mortality disclosure by the Post comes at a time when Baffert is facing scrutiny after his trainee, Zedan Racing Stables’ Medina Spirit, tested positive for betamethasone after winning the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

That infraction, which could lead to the colt’s disqualification and a fine and suspension for Baffert from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, marked the fifth time a Baffert-trained horse tested positive for prohibited medications since May 2, 2020.

Meanwhile, back at the barns in PA

No word yet on details of exactly what the PA Horse Racing Commission confiscated from suspended Parx Racing trainer Richard Vega in late May.

Also, no details yet on the results of Out of Competition testing on horses at Parx or at Penn National Racing from the same time frame.

The next commission meeting is on June 29.

Perhaps the commission will shed some necessary sunlight then.

Publicly, the commission’s acknowledgment of the topic has lasted just 8o seconds.

Lead image credit: AP Photo/Mike Stewart

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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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