PHRC formally opposes raid of racing trust fund, OKs request to cut Presque Isle meet in half

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Feb. 24, 2021

The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission Feb. 23 unanimously adopted a resolution opposing Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to shift $199 million devoted to the Race Horse Development Fund Trust to pay for a higher-education scholarship program.

The PHRC also approved a request from Churchill Downs Inc. to reduce an earlier-approved 100-day race meet at Presque Isle Downs & Casino in 2021 to 52 programs because of an expected lack of sufficient revenue to support the desired purse structure.

Wolf proposed to take $204 million from the trust fund last year as part of his executive budget, but lawmakers rejected it. Because of COVID-19 restrictions that led to the shutdown of the state’s casinos for more than three months in late winter and early spring, as well as for several weeks in December, purse revenue generated by slot machines was down an estimated 40% statewide in 2020 compared with 2019.

The motion was made by PHRC member Tom Ellis, who said the proposed “raid” of the RHDFT would have a “negative and disastrous impact on the horse racing industry, agriculture and economic development” in Pennsylvania. He also said the roughly 10% of slots revenue that goes toward purses, breed development and horsemen’s benefits does not come from the state’s share of slots revenue but from the operators’ gross revenue.

“I understand the need to address student debt but don’t want this to be seen as horse racing versus education,” Ellis said. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not the answer.”

“I recognize the governor’s goal but our obligation as commissioners is to promote and regulate the industry,” PHRC member Sal DeBunda said.

The resolution will be printed and sent to Wolf’s office, racing commissioners said. The state Senate will discuss the fiscal year Agriculture Department budget, which includes horse racing, in early April.

Regarding Presque Isle, the track located just outside of Erie has traditionally offered 100-day meets as required by state statute, though the number of days can be changed if track management and the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association agree. Such was the case for 2021.

Presque Isle, which has a Tapeta surface, usually races from mid-May through early October at least four days a week. It’s latest request is for racing to begin in July and race through early October with mostly four-day race weeks.

A Presque Isle representative wasn’t on the PHRC meeting call, but Todd Mostoller, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania HBPA, said purse revenue is substantially lower than in previous years. He said purses averaged $145,000 per program in 2020, and management and horsemen would like to remain at the level to draw horses to compete. Offering $70,000 per day over 100 days was not an option, he said.

Mostoller said if revenue improves through the year, Presque Isle probably would request additional racing days.

“We will run as many race days as we can afford,” he said. “Hopefully we can do 60 or more, but right now that’s not reality.”

PHRC member Russell Jones said he is concerned if it’s the beginning of a move by CDI to reduce dates permanently, but Mostoller indicated that’s not the case. The request was approved unanimously.

In 2020 at Presque Isle, unlike previous years, there wasn’t one month in which contributions to the RHDFT reached $1 million. For January 2021, the trust fund earned $546,000 from slots play, down 38.2% from $884,000 in January 2020.