DTHA reception shows importance of relationship between industry, legislators

Posted: Jan. 20, 2017

State lawmakers and horseracing stakeholders mingled at Dover Downs the evening of Jan. 19 during an advocacy reception that has become a staple of the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association for almost two decades.

It marked the 18th consecutive year for the well-attended event, held in state capital of Dover because of ready access to legislators. Among the attendees was new Lieutenant Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, a longtime lawmaker who was raised on a farm in Sussex County in southern Delaware.

Hall-Long said agriculture, which includes Thoroughbred and Standardbred breeding and racing, is an important economic driver for the state. She said horses and horsemen are in the middle of a wheel with spokes such as veterinary care, feed providers, and farmers.

“The industry has significance, and it’s important that we keep it sustained,” Hall-Long said. “And it’s not only about economic development but about open space and land preservation.”

The Standardbred industry has an established breed development program with more than 30 stallions standing in Delaware. Because Delaware isn’t known as a Thoroughbred breeding state, the Delaware THA in conjunction with Delaware Park, launched the Delaware Certified Thoroughbred Program, which offers purse incentives at the track for horses that were domiciled at registered farms in the state for a period of time.

Hall-Long noted the value of the program to preserving farmland and providing revenue for Delaware farm owners.

Horsemen were heavily involved a push in the early 1990s that led to passage of legislation authorizing video lottery terminals at Delaware’s three racetracks. The 1994 law was titled the “Horse Racing Redevelopment Act.”

Full-scale casinos are now located at Delaware Park and two harness tracks: Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. Limited sports betting and Internet gaming also are offered in Delaware.

Racing gets a cut of revenue from VLTs (9%), table games (4%), and sports betting (9.8%). Purse revenue from VLTs peaked at the tracks in early 2000s, but the advent of casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania and Maryland has dented business at Delaware casinos in recent years.

Purses at Delaware Park hit a high of $42.48 million for 141 racing dates in 2002, according to Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission statistics. In 2015 the track paid $16.56 million in purses for 81 days of racing.

Delaware THA Executive Director Bessie Gruwell said the annual reception for legislators allows horsemen to make their case on the importance of the horse racing industry in the state and educate new lawmakers on its contributions.

“When people come, they tell us this is the one event they want to attend every year,” Gruwell said. “We try to make it very nice for them. The idea is to get them away from the legislative hall so they can talk in a more informal setting.

“We have a new governor, new lieutenant governor, and new legislators. We like to spend time with them making sure they are educated on our industry.”

Gov. John Carney, who was elected in 2016 after having represented Delaware for three terms in the United States House of Representatives, is a supporter of the horse industry. Carney last September attended a fundraiser at Teague Farm in Harrington and got a chance to sit in a jog cart behind locally based pacer Wiggle It Jiggleit, the 2015 Harness Horse of the Year who has earned almost $4 million thus far in his career.

On Jan. 11 the DTRC recognized Ed Kee, who served as Secretary of Agriculture for eight years under Gov. Jack Markell and is retiring. Kee, who was very active in horseracing in the state and worked to bring horsemen and racetracks together for a common purpose, thanked the racing commission for its work.

“When you came on the job you didn’t know a lot about horses, but you took the time to learn about the industry,” Gruwell told Kee. “Over this eight-year period you’ve been a tremendous help to us.”

It’s relatively quiet on the legislative front racing-wise in Delaware this year. For the past several years, the racetrack casino owners have pushed for tax breaks in light of the impact from casino competition, but it’s unclear if the General Assembly will take up this issue in 2017.

(THA photo of DTHA President Scott Peck, Delaware Lieutenant Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and DTHA Executive Director Bessie Gruwell)