10/05/2010 2:06PM

Differing views on New Jersey's racing woes

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TUCSON, Ariz. – They finally got the bear out of his cave in New Jersey last week, and he turned out to be more of a truculent brown bear than a snarling grizzly. Certainly not cuddly, but Jon Hanson, author of the controversial racing report bearing his name, was not in a biting mood in his public appearance at Monmouth Park. He made it clear, however, in a few growling answers, that he had big teeth if the occasion called for them.

The occasion was the third "Summit on Racing" sponsored by influential Democratic legislators, and heavily attended by horsemen worried about Hanson’s "We love you but we’ve decided to kill you to get you out of your pain" report.

He told the crowd he and the governor were supportive of their problem. There were no laughs audible on the streamed signal, but there might have been a few smirks unseen to viewers.

His legislative questioners tossed few hardballs, realizing they were talking to the governor in absentia, but a few of Hanson’s responses indicated racing had a bigger problem than a mere paper report.

When asked about his report’s planned "city within a city" state takeover of administrative control in Atlantic City, Hanson said "the devil is in the details," and made it clear the devil still had not checked in with any.

When asked about the possibility of racing’s self-sufficiency without state or casino help, he recalled that he was present at the opening of the Meadowlands 34 years ago, when 42,000 attendees blocked highways leading to the track. Today, he said, the track draws 3,000 to 5,000 a night. He conveniently left out any mention of the advent of simulcasting in the 1980s and its huge impact on the distribution of attendance everywhere ever since.

He was asked by one legislator if the public had been interviewed by his commission, and he flatly said no, making no apologies about it. When asked specifically who from racing had been consulted, he said he would have to ask his colleague Bob Mulcahy. who once ran the Meadowlands under Hanson’s oversight.

And when the key question was asked – if a racino at the Meadowlands operated by an Atlantic City casino or consortium of them had been considered – he backed away, telling his legislative questioners that he wrote reports, not laws.

That possibility was not ignored in another report that surfaced last week. Titled "A More Robust Analysis is Needed Before New Jersey Maps a Plan for the Future of our Gaming, Sports, and Entertainment Industries," it was written by Richard Lee for the Hall Institute of Public Policy, a non-partisan, not-for-profit foundation that studies social, economic, educational, and cultural issues. Lee points out early in his 11-page analysis that its purpose "is to point out some obvious shortcomings in the Hanson Report and some of the arguments being made so that discussion and debate can continue and more robust solutions can be considered by the legislature and the governor." He acknowledges that horse racing in New Jersey has survived in large measure because of purse enhancements provided by the casinos. He notes that those who have taken up the cause of the casinos now refer to the enhancements as subsidies, arguing that the subsidies are supporting a dying industry.

"These are blatant mischacterizations," Lee writes, "and need to be addressed.

In addressing them, he says, "Any strategy that relies upon keeping slot machines out of the Meadowlands to revitalize Atlantic City is based upon a false premise. If, however, it is so important to keep convenience gaming out of the tracks in New Jersey (contrary to most other tracks in the country), then maybe the purse enhancement is the way to go and should be continued. But it is not a subsidy. It is a cost for protectionism."

While this political discussion raged in New Jersey, the noose tightened even further around its gambling neck, and those of its racetracks, as the first casino in Maryland was opened by rampaging Penn National Gaming, half an hour north of Baltimore, just off heavily traveled I-95, the main Philadelphia-Baltimore corridor. Others will follow.

One place they hopefully will not invade is the site half-mile from Pennsylvania’s historic Gettysburg battlefield, where the bloodiest battle of the Civil War saved the nation.

In a refreshing show of political courage and character, the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, publicly denounced the idea, putting principle ahead of friendship. He did so even though the primary proponent and major potential beneficiary of the casino is David LeVan, "a good personal friend." When LeVan first tried for the controversial site four years ago, Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia, which has a few historic treasures of its own. At the time Rendell said, "I wouldn’t want a casino two blocks from the Liberty Bell."

There is still hope for mankind.