Racing has to bend to survive

January 06, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

The horse racing industry avoided a problem last week when the members of the Jockeys' Guild elected to sign a new labor agreement instead of stage a walkout. It turned out that the jockeys had no solidarity and, to their great dismay, little support from anyone else in the barns.

If only the one truly serious crisis facing racing could be so easily solved.

That crisis is the increasing popularity of casino gambling, which many in racing view as the devil itself, with good reason. Across the country, attendance and betting handles have fallen sharply at tracks where casinos have popped up nearby. One track in Minnesota had to close. It's easy to see why. The betting action at casinos is faster, more varied and less complicated than at the races.

Racing will always have a sizable and loyal following, of course, but it is a fact that casual bettors (all potential racing customers) are being siphoned off to casinos, a trend that doesn't bode well for racing's future. And the problem only figures to worsen now that political leaders have seen just how profitable gambling can be. Many states have either legalized casinos or are considering it. The lobbying in Annapolis is getting warm.

So far, Joe De Francis and the racing leaders in most other states are vehemently opposing all casino legislation. They're fearful of the death of their industry, or at least a severe diminution. "This is a question of survival," De Francis said.

Yet not everyone in racing is so opposed. Some of the brightest people in the game have chosen to embrace the devil instead of fight it. Everyone should at least stop and consider their examples.

The owner and president of Oaklawn Park, Charles Cella, a racing purist whose family has operated the track since the turn of the century, wants to open a casino on the grounds of his track in Hot Springs, Ark. Until recently, he opposed the mixing of casinos and racing.

"If we had a pristine world I would not change my mind at all," Cella said. "But we have to live with the competition or we'll be buried."

(Arkansas voters were going to vote on the Oaklawn proposal last fall until the state supreme court threw out the proposed amendment on a technicality.)

R.D. Hubbard, the owner of Hollywood Park, operates a card club at the racetrack. The club is a success and Hollywood is flourishing at a time when many tracks are struggling. Hubbard wants to expand the idea to Arizona and Kansas.

"We're clearly creating new horse players out of card players," Hollywood's chief financial officer, Mike Finnigan, told the Associated Press last fall. "We're also creating card players out of horse players."

On the other side of the argument are De Francis and such racing executives as Richard Sacco, director of simulcasting at Hialeah Park in Florida, who told AP that marrying racing and casinos "will [ultimately] draw everything away from racing."

What to do, fight the devil or embrace it? It is the issue at the top of every racing industry leader's agenda these days.

You can't blame the industry for opposing casino legislation, of course. The evidence is damning, and the spreading of the casino monster is still not assured. During the last election, voters in Florida, Rhode Island and Massachusetts voted against legalizing casino gambling.

That gives the anti-casino lobby reason to think that it might be able to keep the fad from spreading if it fights hard enough.

Yet, with such vast amounts of money coursing through the veins of the casino world, it is hard to envision state governments not ultimately finding a way to take a cut. It's just smart business.

In Kentucky, the epicenter of racing, the people at Churchill Downs are preparing for the day when they have to embrace casinos.

"We're in the racing business, but as we're forced to compete [with other forms of gambling], we want to participate," said Churchill Downs spokesman Karl Schmitt. "[Operating a casino] is not what we do, but it comes down to a matter of living in a competitive marketplace. If [casino] gaming comes into our marketplace, we want in."

Although the arrival of casinos in Maryland is far from a certainty yet, a betting man would say that the chances aren't bad. De Francis, like all track operators, is wise to plan for the day when his very survival could depend on having to embrace the devil.

The betting landscape in this country is undergoing a revolution. Racing could get gobbled up if it resists change and refuses to find a niche in the new order. As odious as it sounds to many in racing now, joining hands with casino gambling just might be a necessary move, one that doesn't "save" or transform the sport so much as ensure its future here and in other states.

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