PA commission votes to support bill authorizing tracks to begin live racing

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: May 26, 2020

The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission May 26 unanimously approved a motion to support legislation that would grant horse racing a waiver to Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus (COVID-19) business closure order and facilitate the resumption of live racing.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Barry Jozwiak of Bucks County, where Parx Racing is located, would order the Secretary of Community and Economic Development to issue a waiver for a race meet if licensed racing entities can adhere to social distancing practices and other mitigation measures defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect workers and mitigate the spread of COVID-19; if the PHRC authorizes the activities necessary to regulate racing; and if the equine drug-testing program is operational at the time meets are conducted. The legislation would take effect immediately if passed by both the House of Representatives and Senate and signed by the governor.

The motion by the PHRC to support the legislation was made by Tom Ellis and seconded by Sal DeBunda and John Egloff. The bill was heard in the House State Government Committee May 26 and passed by a vote of 16-9.

“We need to do all we can to be prepared (to resume live racing),” PHRC member Dr. Corinne Sweeney said. “I support this bill wholeheartedly.”

The PHRC earlier had asked Wolf if live racing can resume without on-track patrons and with the necessary protocols in place. PHRC Thoroughbred Bureau Director Tom Chuckas said all parties involved in discussions were “respectful,” but there has been no movement on the request.

The tracks and horsemen’s groups have put together COVID-19 mitigation plans similar to those at other tracks that have offered live racing with only essential personnel permitted access. Chuckas said the plans include areas that are the responsibility of the PHRC, racetracks, and any that overlap.

“There is a draft (plan) for each racetrack, but one of the goals is to make it as standard as possible (even though there are six tracks and two racing breeds),” Chuckas said. “A great deal of work went into this so we can be ready when the governor allows racing to come back.”

Chris McErlean, Vice President of Racing for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course and The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, said he has been engaged in discussions with horsemen at both facilities about live racing given “the casinos’ revenue streams are extremely limited” because they’ve been shuttered for more than two months. McErlean said it’s important to “resume racing in a fiscally responsible way if that does come about.”

Wolf, in his three-phase reopening plan for Pennsylvania, has lumped horse racing in with casinos and other forms of “entertainment” in the final “green” phase. Also, three of the state’s six racetracks—Parx, Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack and Mohegan Sun Pocono—are in counties still designated as “red,” meaning they have to move to two more phases.

The two tracks in counties currently classified as “yellow” are Presque Isle Downs & Casino and The Meadows; the county in which Penn National is located is scheduled to move to that phase May 29.