The Senate Commerce Committee will hold hearings again today on S-1185, the interstate off-track betting bill. The legislation is designed to prohibit the pari-mutuel wagering in one state on a horse race held in another state.
New York and Connecticut, which already accept out-of-state bets, are opposed to such a measure. So is Massachusetts, which apparently looks favorably upon the idea of having such a system some day. Nevada, naturally, favors legalized gambling in any form. No one is quite certain where Illinois stands.Otherwise, those among the other 45 states who care one way or another are solidly for the bill, with Kentucky's thoroughbred breeding establishments supplying much of the clout through its political pawn, the American Horse Council.
Chances of this legislation eventually being passed by Congress are good, which is unfortunate, because S1185 in its current form goes far too far in over-protecting against a potentially damaging situation by prohibiting that which, given intelligent planning, could become a tremendous source of revenue for the sport.
The key words here are "given intelligent planning."
Industry spokesmen promoting S1185 would have us believe that racing would survive only in New York and California if interstate OTB took over; that horse players everywhere would prefer wagering on superior racing, afforded a choice. Small tracks would be forced to close. Hundreds of thousands of persons who work at the track and on the farm would be unemployed.
Something like this could happen - although not so drastically - if, indeed, the nation's thoroughbred racing and breeding industry adopted its predictably negative stance against anything new. If, one the other hand, the industry would continue to do its Capitol Hill homework and work in a constructive manner with the federal and state governments and OTB interests, a compromise bill undoubtedly would be beneficial for all parties.
Intraste and interstate OTB in this country has a horrid history. State politicians have raped thorough-bred racing for revenue without considering even the short-range consequences to the sport. Other forms of gambling such as lotteries, sports betting, casinos, etc., have been legalized making the competition for the public's betting dollars that much tougher.
And OTB's argument that its existence hurts illegal bookmakers is a joke. The OTB parlors don't extend credit, as bookies do, but in New York OTB does have a 5 per cent surcharge on all winnings. What New York OTB does best is to drive the new gambler, once be becomes a little educated, into the arms of the neighborhood bookmaker or lone shark.
I can't say anything particularly pleasant about OTB, considering the way it has operated in the United States. The racetracks and the horsemen never have been given a fair share of the handle.
But perhaps the interstate issue offers an opportunity to turn things around at the federal level. No one, for example, is suggesting that a state that does not have major league racing should be permitted to televise the product of a neighboring state for its OTB shops without attaining that state's permission. It would be up to the track and to the horsemen within the "raided" states to make sure they received a fair share of the new revenue.
Admittedly this would mean the end of the line for many small tracks as the nation's 20 to 30 major race courses become financially stronger. But it is impossible to make the case for the continued existence of many tracks operating in this country today. Too many of them offer poor racing, with cheap horses stumbling around the ovals, playing a game of questionable integrity.
Unfortunately, too many of the nation's thoroughbred breeders want only to breed more horses, not better horses. They want all the bush circuits to survive so that there will be an opportunity for all their four legged products to race, even the weak and the infirm which so desperately need modern medication.
More breeding has not meant better breeding in the United States. More racing has not meant better racing. There seems to be a weakening at the top in order to support the bottom of the barrel. It is time for this trend to be reversed.
Given intelligent use of a map, a calender, and a clock an interstate OTB program with reasonable restrictions could be established so that at least half of the 99 existing thoroughbred tracks would survive, and survive splendidly. The market for top bloodstock would be stronger than ever because purses at the remaining tracks would be aided by revenues received from betting money taken out of state. A new well would be tapped; potentially a gusher.
One stipulation should be immediate: interstate OTB must be restricted to daylight hours. This would enable many thoroughbred tracks to continue to operate profitably at night, after switching from afternoon programs. They could not compete with the televised action piped in to their home states that afternoon from New York, California, Florida or Illinois, but they would have the evening to themselves.
This, of course, could be disasterous for harness racing. The trotters can't compete against the flats, head-to-head, a.m. or p.m. The charioteers would have to take what's left, which might be wodefully little, which explains why the harness racing organizations are so up-tight about any compromise on S1185. They have always been smarter than their thoroughbred brethren when it comes to operating in the present and thinking about the future.
But fear not. Many of the harness folk would survive, somehow. They have always been politically more aware, particularly at the state level. It is the thoroughbred people who have always needed help when it comes to knowing what is best for their own business.