To horsemen and others familiar with the horse-racing industry, Sunday’s front-page in-depth stories about the declining number of race horses nationally would not have come as a surprise. Indeed, the downward trend has been going on for more than 20 years.
But, to Mahoning Valley residents who are expecting the new racetrack and slots casino in Austintown to trigger the revival of horse racing in Ohio, Vindicator Reporter Robert Connelly’s coverage of the problems plaguing the industry statewide and nationally is an eye opener.
Connelly’s reference to a speech in June made by James Gagliano, Jockey Club president and CEO, to the American Horse Council served to put the challenge confronting the industry in perspective.
“Where have all the horses gone?” Gagliano asked rhetorically. “The foal crop has dropped from approximately 38,000 in 2004 to 22,000 in 2014. Field sizes will continue to decline if other factors remain the same. Races that averaged 8.28 horses in 2004 will have fewer than seven in 2014.”
Given that the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown will have the newest track in Ohio in 50 years, the Ohio Racing Commission made it clear to the owner, Penn National Gaming, that horse racing is the reason for the racino’s being,
In fact, the commission demanded that Penn provide close to 1,000 stalls for horses and increase the number of enclosed seating with a view of the track.
Penn National officials had wanted to start small and then increase the number of stalls and enclosed seating as demand increased.
But, the state panel was not in a compromising mood. Members argued that the newest racetrack in Ohio would attract horse owners from around the country and, therefore, had to be in a position to accommodate the horses and the large number of racing enthusiasts.
As a result, 988 stalls in 13 barns are being constructed, with an additional 54 stalls for horses typically not kept at the track.
The agreement between Penn National and the Ohio Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the state’s racing industry, also covers revenue sharing on proceeds from video- lottery gambling to boost race purses. There also will be simulcasts of races originating at the track.
Penn National’s position
And yet, Sunday’s stories about the shortage of horses suggests Penn National may have been right in arguing that going big from the outset was not justified.
However, state racing officials expressed confidence that the Austintown facility will feature strong fields and that out-of-state breeders already have indicated an interest in coming to Ohio.
That’s all well and good, but given the hard line the racing commission took with Penn National, the onus is on state officials to ensure that thoroughbred horse-racing experiences the revival in Ohio they’re banking on.