Food for Thought

Racing Renaissance

Examining Ohio’s recent reemergence as a harness hotbed

by Tom LaMarra

The stabilization and resulting growth of the racing and breeding industry since racetrack video lottery terminals (VLTs) were legislatively approved in 2011 has made Ohio a premier location, particularly on the Standardbred side. According to Ohio Lottery Commission statistics, annual VLT revenue has tripled in the past decade—from $437.6 million in 2014 to $1.35 billion in 2023.

Purse accounts receive a share of the revenue based on agreements with horsepeople’s associations and breeders’ organizations. Stats from the USTA’s Pathway system show that purses in 2023 in Ohio totaled a record $101.6 million, an increase of 8.3 percent from the previous year.

Though it pales in comparison to the proceeds from VLT revenue, the industry also receives funds from the state’s four commercial casinos, which were authorized via constitutional amendment in 2009.

The law established that 3 percent of the tax on gross casino revenue be distributed to the Ohio State Racing Commission (OSRC) to support purses, breeding programs, administration and operations at all existing commercial horse racetracks. The OSRC solicits public comments and industry feedback on use of the money and has discretion in appropriation of the casino tax revenue.

 

In April, the OSRC received $2.56 million from the casino tax and subsequently issued its distributions. The largest beneficiaries were the Ohio Standardbred Development Fund and Ohio Thoroughbred Race Fund, which each received $487,452 to fund purses and/or support breeding programs. Each of the state’s seven racetracks received funds to supplement purses in different amounts. MGM Northfield Park, which races the most dates of any Ohio track, was granted the highest number at $350,254.

Unlike some other racetrack gaming states, the casino tax funds in Ohio can be used to support racing operations. For instance, two Standardbred facilities—Miami Valley Gaming & Racing and Eldorado Scioto Downs—each received $192,415.

Regulation of the racing and breeding industry also benefits from the casino tax. More than $128,000 went to the OSRC operating fund to provide compensation to the administrative staff that supports the Ohio Standardbred Development Fund and Ohio Thoroughbred Race Fund, and/or for costs and fees associated with commercial operations of racing at the seven tracks.

States with racing industries that benefit from casino revenue—either directly or indirectly—have not only different revenue percentages, but also different recipients. In New York, every track devotes a percentage to purses and breed development from VLTs, but the New York Racing Association, via Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack, also receives percentages for capital improvements and operations. Pennsylvania provides benefits for horsepeople. Some states carve out funding for racing fairs.

There have been discussions over the years suggesting that the agencies that regulate horse racing should have been granted a dedicated percentage of gaming revenue to support their activities. Many of them had long relied on what became a share of rapidly declining on-track pari-mutuel wagering and in-state off-track betting outlets.

The funds certainly would have been useful in today’s regulatory environment with the advent of the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), which has an operating budget of $80.9 million this year for Thoroughbred racing. It is estimated that more than $18 million in credits—racing commissions that are using their own staff to carry out HISA duties—will reduce the actual bill to about $60 million that will be paid by states, racetracks and horsepeople’s groups, depending on the jurisdiction.

Some may consider the 3-percent casino tax on gross revenue in Ohio insignificant. But this year, it will contribute almost $1 million to breed development programs and also support regulatory administration and racetrack operations. Other jurisdictions surely wouldn’t mind having that additional financial support with increasing regulatory costs and, at times, staffing shortages.

Back to the racing stats, for anyone who regularly attended OSRC meetings from the mid-2000s through 2011, it was gloom and doom and a litany of negative economic indicators. Total Standardbred purses bottomed out at $16.4 million (an average of $2,894 per race, according to Pathway) in 2011. In 2000, the figure was $37.3 million.

In Ohio, however, harness racing had deep historic and cultural roots—tracks in or near cities and a slew of county fairs in rural communities. That’s still the case, and it played a major role in the industry’s survival through the bad times.

Today, three of the state’s four Standardbred tracks (the circuit of Scioto, Miami Valley and Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway) offer live racing five days a week, while Northfield offers four nights a week year-round. Five-day race weeks have become a luxury in racing, regardless of breed, in recent years, and that’s not expected to change. HB

 

Tom LaMarra has worked as a writer, columnist and editor for newspapers, magazines and websites in the racing industry, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred, for more than 25 years. He currently is director of communications and backstretch services for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the USTA. To comment on this column, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

360 More posts in Hoof Beats Magazine category
Recommended for you
Recipe for Success

Managing older stallions means accommodating their quirks with excellent care by Kimberly A. Rinker In...