What’s the best use of racetrack?

If the plan to build a $200 million horse-racing facility in Austintown becomes a reality, it will be the first new track in Ohio in 50 years. And that raises a crucial question: Is it better for the state to have harness racing , or would a thoroughbred park attract greater national and international attention?

The question is pertinent because the horse-racing industry in Ohio has been struggling for decades. There are numerous reasons for this, including the fact that the purses aren’t as large as in other states. But there’s also a school of thought that says Ohio would be better able to compete if its racetracks were newer. The last one to be built was Scioto Downs.

In a listing of leading racing jurisdictions, New York is the leader, then Florida, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Ontario, Louisiana, West Virginia and Indiana.

Trotters vs. thoroughbreds

But having a new racetrack would certainly boost the Buckeye State’s reputation — if not its standing. However, the issue of harness racing (trotters) vs. thoroughbred racing is being brought to the fore as Ohio moves to give the industry a major financial boost.

Gov. John Kasich recently signed a law that makes a permit holder of horse-track racing eligible to become a video- lottery sales agent in order to apply to the State Racing Commission to move its track from one location to another.

The legislation was co-sponsored by state Rep. Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, to facilitate a plan by Penn National Gaming Inc. to relocate two of its horse racetracks in Ohio. One, Beulah Park in Grove City near Columbus, would be moved to the Dayton area; the other, Raceway Park in Toledo, would be moved to Austintown. Penn National is planning a $200 million facility on the vacant 86-acre site of Centerpointe Business Park.

In announcing its plans, Penn National made it clear that the relocations would occur only if Ohio permitted video-lottery terminals (electronic slot machines) to be located in the state’s seven horse racing tracks: Beulah, River Downs and Thistledown, which feature thoroughbred racing; Lebanon, Northfield, Raceway Park and Scioto Downs, which have harness racing.

With the law on the books permitting VLTs, the Austintown project is a step closer to becoming a reality.

However, there is a new development pertaining to racinos (racetracks and casinos) that could have an impact on what occurs in the Mahoning Valley. As Mahoning Township, Pa., Supervisor Gary Pezzuolo put it recently: The possibility that a racetrack/casino being developed in the north part of the township “looks better than it’s looked for a long time.” The facility would be built just over the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, a stone’s throw from Youngstown.

American Harness Tracks Inc. of Pittsburgh submitted a successful bid in the bankruptcy sale of the Valley View Downs racino project and is moving forward. The next step would be to apply for the casino license.

Local competition

If these plans come to fruition, the Austintown race track would certainly have competition. Why? Because not only would the Western Pennsylvania facility have harness racing, but would also have a full-service casino with Las Vegas-style gambling.

While it is true that Mountaineer Race Track and Casino in West Virginia and Presque Isle Downs and Casino in Erie, Pa., offer thoroughbred racing, the Austintown track would still be the newest in this part of the country.

But the Mahoning Township project isn’t the only reason for Austintown Township officials to be concerned. The proposal by two businessmen from Cleveland, perhaps with the backing of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Caesars Entertainment, to locate a thoroughbred track, casino and resort in Vienna Township is still alive.

Gilbert and Caesars have joined forces to build Vegas-style casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati; Penn National is building casinos in Toledo and Columbus. Would Gilbert sit idly by while Penn National locates a racino in his back yard (Austintown)?

The stakes are high, indeed, but if Ohio’s horse racing industry is to keep pace with the more successful ones in other states, it will need to come up with a marketing strategy that enables it to stand out. A new thoroughbred horse-racing track in Ohio would certainly get the attention of the owners of top-caliber horses.

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