PA Horse Racing Commission Looks to Regroup: Tracks Reopen, but Coffers Down

Posted on July 1, 2020 - Last Updated on September 27, 2020

Horse racing in Pennsylvania is back — mostly, members of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission heard during a brief audio meeting Tuesday afternoon.

And while overall there is “a lot of good news,” in the words of Tom Chuckas, director of thoroughbred racing for the commission, there are still some bumps and challenges.

Presque Isle is lagging the racing field

For starters, Presque Isle Downs in Erie has yet to resume thoroughbred racing.

But that is because of Churchill Downs, the track’s parent company, not the COVID-19 restrictions that sidelined racing for three months or more at the state’s three thoroughbred and three harness tracks.

Presque Isle will not race until July 27.

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Revenue drops, expenses rise for racing

The inactivity meant a 14% drop in revenue from the end of May 2019 to May 2020, the commission reported. But personnel costs were also down by an offsetting 14%.

However, operating expenses were up 9%, largely due to services from the University of Pennsylvania‘s New Bolton Center in Chester County.

The state racing nonrestricted fund, the primary account that pays for racing, dropped from $6.002 million to $4.854 million in the same period.

Racing purses are, by law, largely paid for via about a 10% cut of retail casino slot profits. That means the short-term financial picture for racing is not entirely clear as casinos are reopening with capacity restrictions, meaning less revenue and shorter race meets.

Long-term worries for racing; breeders leaving PA

The long-term finances for the industry are also murky due to an attempted funds diversion by Gov. Tom Wolf earlier in the year. Wolf’s Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding, chair of the racing commission, supported the governor’s proposal.

The commission heard that several breeders left the Keystone State in February and March. Presumably, that came in response to the attempt to raid money from the racing fund, which also provides incentives for breeders.

The fund began in 2004 as part of the law that brought casinos to the state.

Wolf’s shelved plan was meant to divert $204 million annually from the support of racing purses and breeding programs to a proposed scholarship program for PA students attending any of the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools.

And while the Wolf plan never gained political traction and was not a part of the approved temporary state budget, it could come up again when the rest of the budget is considered in November.

Board supports racing at local fairs

The board voted to support allowing harness horse racing at county fairs, even though many of the fairs are otherwise canceled.

Organized harness racing and wagering in PA grew out of those agricultural fairs. The Quaker State had 108 such fairs planned in 2020. The virus has presumptively already canceled 73 of them.

Of the 108 fairs, 15 had planned harness racing. Virus concerns canceled nine fairs with race meets. County fair racing is allowed only when held in conjunction with a fair. Pari-mutuel wagering is permitted at the county race meets.

But there’s a plan now for racing even at locations where the agricultural events are canceled.

The commission agreed to send a letter to the governor supporting the exemption.

Next meeting planned to be in person

In a positive piece of forward-looking planning, the commission expects to hold its next meeting on July 28 as usual, a meeting with commissioners in attendance and before a public audience. That will be a first since February.

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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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