Conspiracy theories aside, the reason the Ohio State Racing Commission is making such seemingly unreasonable demands on the developer of the racino in Austintown has to do with the fact that Ohio’s horse-racing industry has been struggling and needs a crack of the whip to get it galloping.
The $125 million thoroughbred race track and slots casino represents that whip hit. The race track would be the first new one in Ohio in 50 years, and members of the racing commission obviously view it as the key to attracting top-rated race horses that would put the state on the national map. Such horses rarely come to Ohio now because owners and trainers are worried about the possibility of injuries or worse, given the age of the tracks.
In a listing of leading racing jurisdictions, New York is at the top, then Florida, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Ontario, Louisiana, West Virginia and Indiana.
Given what’s at stake, the Ohio racing commission should put its money where its mouth is. The demands being made threaten to derail the entire project in Austintown.
The developer, Penn National Gaming, the leading owner/operator of race tracks and casinos in the country, has warned that the commission’s insistence for more than 1,000 seats in an enclosed space could be a deal-breaker.
Penn National argues persuasively that there were no objections to its original development plans for the 185-acre site off state Route 46 in Austintown. It called for 600-plus seats outdoors and 250 seats enclosed.
The plans were revised after the racing commission raised objections and refused to grant Penn National a transfer of the race track license from Beulah Park near Columbus.
But even after providing for more enclosed seating and an increase in the number of stalls and dorm rooms, the commission has still refused to grant its approval.
A fourth meeting between Penn National officials and commissioners, who are gubernatorial appointees, has been scheduled for this week. While it appears that the commission may be willing to compromise, the fact remains that site clearance and other development activity have come to a screeching halt.
Penn National is unwilling to go forward so long as there is uncertainty surrounding the project.
The company is heavily invested in Ohio: It has built full-service casinos in Columbus and Toledo, and is relocating race tracks from Beulah (to Austintown) and Raceway Park in Toledo to the Dayton area.
Beulah, River Downs and Thistledown feature thoroughbred racing; Lebanon, Northfield, Raceway Park and Scioto Downs have harness racing.
All the race tracks will become racinos, with the addition of electronic slot machines.
But from a horse-racing standpoint, Austintown is the prize, which is why the racing commission is insisting on 1,000-plus enclosed seating. The racing season will encompass winter months and commissioners want to make sure the weather does not dampen the enthusiasm of racing fans.
Although Penn National officials have said the clientele for the Mahoning Valley Racecourse and Hollywood Casino will come from a 50-mile radius, the horse-racing industry obviously has visions of Austintown becoming a major stop on the circuit.
Having a brand new track will certainly encourage out-of-state horse owners to take a close look at Ohio. And that raises a question members of the Ohio State Racing Commission should answer:
Given the importance of the Austintown racino to the state’s racing industry, why don’t you pay for all the work and time that will go into revising Penn National’s development plan?
Indeed, why not sweeten the pot and guarantee the casino operator the money it will lose as a result of opening day being postponed for several months if it has to expand the enclosed seating?
After all, the state racing panel is trying to save a faltering industry — this state of affairs isn’t confined to Ohio — so it should be willing to make an investment in its future.
On the other hand, being reasonable with Penn National — by letting the company open the racino on schedule — will ultimately result in a financial boost for the horse-racing industry.