PA Pony Roundup: Lasix Ban Approved, A Failed Pony Raid And Derby Betting Options

Written By Kevin Shelly on April 26, 2021 - Last Updated on April 27, 2021

Saddle up, pony people, the Kentucky Derby is Saturday. Pennsylvania horse players have several options for watching and betting on the big race. And on Tuesday, the CDC loosened its advice on mask-wearing outdoors and allowed for more fans in stands.

Whether you watch at home, an off-track betting parlor, or one of Pennsylvania’s six racinos, betting online is always an option at PA horse betting apps.

And meanwhile, there have been lots of horse racing happenings in Pennsylvania recently. We dive into the latest PA horse racing news every month right here in the PlayPA Pony Roundup.

Lasix ban in PA horse racing?

April 27 update: The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission voted to bar the use of the anti-bleeding drug Lasix for all two-year-old thoroughbred horses and in all Graded Stakes races conducted in Pennsylvania starting on June 1, 2021.

Several representatives from horsemen and breeder groups unsuccessfully sought a delay on the vote. Those favoring imposing the ban pointed to other states also moving to bar the drug.

The ban does not extend to harness horses.

Lasix, given just before a race, is meant to prevent a horse from bleeding into its lungs. And it is widely considered a performance enhancer.

It is also controversial because it is also a diuretic. A horse given the drug will excrete urine at a higher rate than usual. In some cases, that means as much as a 20-pound loss of weight just before the race.

And it can mask other drugs in a horse’s system.

During the commission meeting, one track executive said staffing tracks with vets has become difficult and available doctors have increased their rates to as much as four times what they charged before the virus.

Drugging and deaths are not the same issues in horse racing

The Philadelphia Inquirer used 4,000 sprawling words in a late March story to rightfully rail about racing oversight and horse deaths, particularly at Parx Racing.

Most seriously, the report stated:

“State racing officials have suspended more than 1,800 licenses and handed out more than 4,500 fines in the last five years, disciplining some violators for using banned drugs. However, they said, none of the horses that died in the last two years were found to have been injected with illegal substances.”

But the story and a subsequent editorial still somewhat conflated all PA horse deaths with the drugging issue, which is just not the case, according to Pete Peterson of the state’s Equine Coalition. And Peterson pointed out the horse mortality issue improved in 2020, though of course there was less racing due to virus restrictions.

Misjudged the traction and the conditions

Both Inquirer pieces supported Gov. Tom Wolf’s Nellie Bly scholarship proposal to redirect $200 million in horseracing funds which flow from a set aside from about 10% of PA’s land-based slots, but without any real context of how the legislative set-aside with no sunset provision came about as a quid pro quo between urban Democrats and rural Republicans to legalize casinos in the first place.

Neither piece acknowledged that the pony money is held in an encumbered trust fund, a trust fund authorized by Wolf.

And most critically, neither piece examined the political realities of getting the support to make a change.

This is the second year Wolf has made the proposal, but without any real adjustments in his proposal.

Likewise, the Commonwealth Foundation, a public policy alternatives think tank with a free-market bent based in Harrisburg, has for the second year in a row railed against the racing fund set-aside, again without examining the political context or political reality.

‘Definition of insanity’ lawmaker said of floating same proposal

PlayPennsylvania recently checked in with the likely bill sponsor, state Sen. Wayne Fontana. According to Fontana, the draft legislative proposal has no chance of passage – “not gonna fly” he said bluntly – as it currently stands due to a lack of votes even among his own Republican party.

A story in LevittownNow.com (Levittown adjoins Parx) reported several lawmakers admonishing PA Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding for failing to respond during a budget hearing to address how racing’s business model would respond if the horse funds are shifted. As AG Secretary, Redding oversees horse racing in the Commonwealth.

After the meeting, Western PA state Sen. Joe Pittman, a Republican, called the Wolf administration’s failure to address legislative questions about diverting the racing trust funds for two years in a row “the definition of insanity.”

And while the Wolf administration was running the same old playbook as the one that failed to garner support last year, harness horsemen at the Meadows Casino Racetrack in Western PA entertained lawmakers and staff in late March with “Legislative Day” for a contingent of lawmakers and staff.

In all, 20 state representatives, all Republicans, attended and heard pitches about racing’s economic impact beyond the tracks.

Horse betting options increasing in PA

In PA, those looking to bet horses online have their pick between PABets and FanDuel Racing. Now the state has another racing app.

Churchill Downs, parent of the Derby and Presque Isle Downs in PA, now has a PA betting app integrating horse racing, sports betting, and online casino.

The company hopes the new TwinSpires sports betting app (formerly BetAmerica) will bring in customers beyond the racing barn crowd.

In another move meant to make wagering on horses more like sports betting, New Jersey is considering fixed-odds betting, rather than pari-mutuel wagering, where the odds are not locked in until the moment before a race.

If Jersey makes such a change, there will be pressure for PA to follow suit.

According to an AG Department spokeswoman:

“The State Horse Racing Commission has had no discussions on fixed-odds wagering. Allowing the practice in Pennsylvania would require legislation.”

How likely that might be is difficult to gauge with the budget season from now until the end of June.

Parx graded stakes schedule

Parx Racing has released its 2021 Stakes Schedule featuring over $5 million in purses after scratching most of its schedule last year due to COVID-19 issues.

The marque events are the return of the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes.

Both of the $1 million races run on Saturday, September 25. Seven other stakes including The Gallant Bob (G2), Turf Monster (G3), Dr. James Penny Memorial (G3), and the Greenwood Cup (G3) are also on the schedule.

New director of racing for Meadows

The Meadows has named Scott Lishia as its new director of racing. He’s responsible for all facets of  Meadows’ year-round harness racing program and its pari-mutuel operations.

Lead image via Dreamstime.

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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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