State officials are tentatively optimistic about the future of Pennsylvania horse racing with the funding and oversight reforms signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Tom Wolf.
The new law is the culmination of months of intense negotiations. Talks were sparked last fall when the Wolf administration declared the industry’s money problems were severe enough to warrant a shutdown.
“It was real. I mean, we had a crisis of funding,” said state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding. “You couldn’t pay the operations of the commission, the operations of the tracks. You couldn’t cover the drug-testing costs.”
The industry’s money problems stem from a big drop in horse bets. Redding said wagers have dropped 71 percent over 15 years.
The negotiated compromise increases fees and operating costs for the horse racing industry. It also provides for a transfer of money from a state fund supported by slot machines. So, essentially, the funding crisis was averted by tapping two sources for financial support: horsemen and casinos.
The fates of the two industries have been intertwined since Pennsylvania legalized slot machines in 2004, in part to revive horse racing. Some have called it an unhappy marriage of convenience, but Redding said “the marriage has to last.”
“They both said yes, OK?” said Redding. “They both said yes. So they are together.”
The new law also provides for a state marketing budget — $2.4 million a year starting in July — to promote, for the first time, horse racing in Pennsylvania. That money is also slated to come from the state fund supported by slot machines. Redding said the long-term future of horse racing in the commonwealth is dependent on how well it can attract bettors. Casinos, at least for now, are expected to help.