12/08/2010 6:31PM

NTRA backing online poker legislation


TUCSON, Ariz. - The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is putting its lobbying efforts behind a bill that would legalize online poker and give horseplayers tax breaks that the association has long sought, but the bill's chances in the current lame-duck session remain marginal, officials for the association said on Wednesday.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada and majority leader, to satisfy calls from casino-gambling constituents for the legalization of online poker. NTRA lobbyists have been successful in attaching several amendments benefiting the horse racing industry, including an increase in the tax-reporting requirement for horse racing gambling winnings from $600 to $1,200 and the elimination of automatic tax withholdings on gambling winnings over $5,000 on bets with odds at 300-1 or greater.

Skeptical that the bill could pass on its own, supporters are attempting to attach the bill to the legislation that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts. Negotiations on getting the legislation attached to the bill remain ongoing, according to Greg Means, a lobbyist with the Alpine Group who does work for the NTRA.

"It's not finalized by any stretch of the imagination," Means said, while speaking via telephone during an NTRA panel presentation at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming in Tucson. "But things have kind of gone into neutral."

The bill also includes a provision that would clarify the legality of interstate wagering, according to Peggy Hendershot, the NTRA's senior vice president of legislation and corporate planning. The NTRA has been seeking the clarification because the Justice Department continues to maintain that interstate wagering is illegal under the Federal Wire Act, which placed limits on the transmission of wagering information over state lines in 1961.

In addition, the bill would exempt account-wagering operations from provisions in the poker bill that would tax and regulate any new companies that create online poker sites, Hendershot said. Lobbyists for racing have argued that the account-wagering operations are already regulated and taxed at the state level.

Many Republican lawmakers remain opposed to any expansion of online gambling, and on Wednesday morning, Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, told ABC News that he would oppose any effort to attach the online poker bill to the tax bill. "Not gonna happen," Kyl said.

Racing lobbyists view the current effort to be the best chance in the next two years to get the racing-related provisions passed. In 2011, Republicans will take control of the House from the Democrats, and chances of getting gambling legislation passed in both houses will then become "slim" until Democrats regain some of the seats they lost in the 2010 election, Means said.

Although legalization of online poker would offer competition to horse racing in the internet-gambling marketplace for the first time, many racing companies have quietly supported the bill because of ambitions to use their existing account-wagering platforms to offer poker as well.

Greater participation urged in safety program

Also during the NTRA presentation, Mike Ziegler, the executive director of the association's Safety and Integrity Alliance, implored racetracks to take advantage of the alliance's accreditation program. Only 19 tracks have asked the alliance to review their tracks for accreditation, Ziegler said, despite a vow by 55 tracks to complete the accreditation process when it was launched two years ago.

"Ask management at your track why they're not on this list," Ziegler told the audience, referencing a map that showed the 19 tracks that have so far been accredited.

The accreditation program was launched in 2008 after the death of Eight Belles in that year's Kentucky Derby brought widespread public scrutiny to the racing industry. Under the program, which is voluntary, tracks must meet a list of conditions developed by the alliance in order to be accredited that run from prerace veterinary practices to regulations regarding medication and safety equipment.

The alliance hired Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin and the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, to monitor the program's results, and in a videotaped message, he said he was "disappointed" in the program's progress, citing the thin list of tracks that have sought accreditation.

"Safety and ethics are going to be demanded by the racing public," Thompson said.

In order to spur participation, the alliance has amended the fee structure that is assessed during the accreditation process so that it is tiered based on a track's total purse distribution. In addition, tracks that are members of the NTRA will have the costs credited to the dues that are owed to the NTRA for the next year, Ziegler said.

Mike Campbell, the president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said after the presentation that his board plans to pass a resolution later this month requiring Chicago-area tracks to be accredited. Arlington Park has been accredited, but Hawthorne Race Course has not.

"If the racetracks won't do it, I think the horsemen's groups should," Campbell said.