PTHA, PA Equine Coalition question logic of governor’s reopening strategy

Posted: May 13, 2020

The Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which represents horsemen at Parx Racing, has questioned the logic of a decision by Gov. Tom Wolf to couple live racing with casinos when it comes to the reopening of businesses in the state.

Wolf earlier released a three-phase reopening plan—red, yellow and green—and the businesses or activities that would be included in each one. The racing industry had believed that, if it were to offer live racing with only essential personnel permitted access, it would be classified as yellow. The colors are being assigned to each county in Pennsylvania; two of them—Erie and Washington, which are home to Presque Isle Downs & Casino and The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, respectively—were among more than 20 counties moved to the yellow classification last week.

In a May 12 video address to the membership, PTHA President Sal DeBunda provided an update on the racing industry’s efforts to win a statewide exemption so it could race without spectators even if the partner casinos were not yet permitted to open. DeBunda said Wolf initially indicated he would consider it, but on May 8 “changed the rules slightly.”

“His staff told our lobbyist we are now coupled with casinos and other forms of entertainment,” DeBunda said, “so we can’t open until we get to the green zone. Even racetracks that are now in the yellow zone—Presque Isle and The Meadows—can’t open until they get to the green zone.”

In response to the industry request, which came from the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, Wolf in a May 12 letter to PHRC Chairman Russell Redding, who serves as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, said: “As part of this reopening effort, we see foresee horse racing reopening when when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (such as casinos and theaters). I commend the commission’s efforts to implement mitigation efforts for those who are continuing to care for the horses at this time.”

The Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, of which the PTHA is a member, said the governor doesn’t appear to understand the racing industry.

“Advocates for racing’s return were particularly thrown by Wolf lumping the racetracks in with venues like casinos and theaters, which cannot operate without patrons,” the PEC said on Twitter. “Pennsylvania horsemen are seeking limited reopening with no fans. It’s not clear Gov. Wolf fully grasps what the industry is requesting. His reference to move theaters and other inside entertainment with patrons has no similarity to an outside racetrack facility closed off from the public with limited workers following (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines.”

Earlier this year, Wolf, a Democrat, floated a budget proposal that would have taken $204 million a year from the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Trust Fund to pay for a college scholarship program. The PEC, which counts all the state’s horsemen’s organizations and breeder associations as members, lobbied against the plan, which didn’t seem to garner enough support in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate.

“We see no logic in the fact he’s now saying racetracks without patrons are in the same category as casinos,” DeBunda said. “We don’t understand that. The state is losing a tremendous amount of money and we believe the governor is losing an opportunity to make some of that back. (Wolf and the legislature) may look to us to help make up that shortfall when we’re not even open yet.”

As for Parx, DeBunda said the PTHA can’t get answers on whether management would even allow racing before the casino opens and whether horses will be permitted to ship in and out of the stable area. Parx suspended live racing after its March 10 program.

“They are not answering our questions,” DeBunda said. “They say they need clarity.”

DeBunda said he is hoping live racing returns to Parx no later than June 15.