PA Racing Commission opposes raid of Race Horse Development Trust Fund

Posted: Feb. 26, 2020

The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission Feb. 25 adopted a resolution opposing Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to take $204 million a year from the Race Horse Development Trust Fund to pay for a college scholarship program.

Wolf announced his plan during a budget address in early February, and since that time stakeholders in the racing and breeding industry as well as lawmakers have voiced opposition and noted the industry’s contribution to economic development and agriculture. Wolf signed the 2016 legislation that placed the funds into a trust in order to prevent the money—a share of slot machine revenue at the state’s racetrack casinos and non-track casinos—from being designated for other uses.

Budget hearings for fiscal 2021 are underway in the state capital. In order to alter the RHDFT, legislation must be passed.

The PHRC falls under the state Department of Agriculture. Department Secretary Russell Redding, who chairs the commission, abstained from the Feb. 25 vote given his position in state government.

PHRC member Sal DeBunda, President of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association at Parx Racing, said horsemen aren’t opposed to college scholarships but believe “the funding mechanism doesn’t make sense. This industry produces a lot of jobs.”

“There would be no industry—it’s that simple,” Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association President Sam Beegle said. “If this is approved by the legislature it will result in the end of horse racing in Pennsylvania.”

Brian Sanfratello, Executive Secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, said the number of Thoroughbred mares bred was up 47% last year, and that “could have been shattered” in 2020 if not for the uncertainty brought on by the governor’s announcement. He said the Pennsylvania numbers are “unbelievable” given overall declines in the breeding industry nationwide.

“We did this without one penny of taxpayers’ money. I’d like the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission to come out and try to talk to the (legislative) caucuses to explain that it’s not state money and it’s not taxpayers’ money,” Sanfratello said.

DeBunda suggested that Wolf meet with PHRC members.

Redding said that, in his position as a cabinet member, the situation is complicated. He suggested industry stakeholders have to better educate the public on the size and scale of the equine industry in Pennsylvania and the contributions it makes to the state.

“This is a process that plays out in a very public way,” Redding said. “(The industry) needs to the make the case why continued investment in racing is necessary.”

As part of the 2016 Horse Racing Reform legislation, horsemen’s associations and breeders’ organizations agreed to commit 1% of purse money earned from slots—about $2.4 million a year—toward statewide and track-specific marketing programs. That effort has included an emphasis on the economic impact racing and breeding has in Pennsylvania and a focus on those who own, train and work with racehorses or work on breeding farms.

(Penn National photo by Tom LaMarra)