12/13/2012 10:59AM

Pennsylvania has strong model for harness racing

Pennsylvania horsemen have set aside $900k to bring the Breeders Crown to Pocono Downs in 2013.

Times are a changing. As noted over the past weeks stallions are on the move to Pennsylvania. The state appears to be the model of what slot legislation can do for the horse racing industry. Earlier this week it was announced by Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs that in 2013 the track has set out to card even more races for horses specifically Pennsylvania owned, bred and located within its borders.

That news may have sent shock waves to training centers in New Jersey and even New York, since those are the current locations where trainers house their stock and ship to Harrah’s Philadelphia or Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs to race. But like those training centers, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs also operates a backstretch with approximately 700 stalls and wishes to keep that backstretch opened.

The facts bear out that Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs lost between $160,000 and $170,000 in operational costs of their backstretch this year.

“This was a decision made by the track and something we support,” said Ron Battoni the executive director of the Pennsylvania Harness Horseman’s Association that represent horsemen at both Pocono and Harrah’s.

While the anticipated rulings will also have an affect in helping training centers in Pennsylvania versus other states, Battoni believes that too is in the best interest of his organization.

While it is generally accepted that Pennsylvania offers the best situation to horsemen from its slots program, Battoni and his group are far from sitting idle and taking any money for granted. For the second time in four years Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs will play host to the Breeders Crown races in 2013. The money to help fund these races will come in large part from the horsemen.

“We have set aside $900,000 from money we have allotted to stakes for the Breeders Crown,” said Battoni. “After the success we had in 2010 we wanted to bring it back again.”

What’s in it for the horsemen?

“Everything doesn’t have to benefit the horsemen directly,” said Battoni, “They’ve done very well since the slots. This is more about helping the area, local hotels and local businesses and bringing people to the track that don’t normally come.”

Pennsylvania horsemen have shown that they not only care about themselves but they also care about the future of the sport. That’s why they spend $1.3 million annually from money that could go towards purses on marketing. A weekly cable show hosted by the popular Heather Moffett called “PA Harness Week” is a prime example of the positive impact the funds provide to the industry.

Battoni stands behind the horsemen and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.

“Mohegan Sun has spent a lot of money as well supporting racing,” Battoni said.

Like other states and provinces, Battoni’s group learned their lesson last year when they were forced to defend purse money provided by law that was trying to be clawed back by current politicians.

“We got caught sleeping,” said Battoni, “But that won’t happen again.”

“We found out that between 2004 and 2011 about 65 percent of the people who voted for the slot legislation were no longer in office. That meant the new people didn’t have a clue what the purpose and the benefits of the program were.”

The move to bring more horses physically to the state of Pennsylvania certainly adds to the value of the program from a political perspective.

The Pennsylvania horsemen Battoni represents (The Meadows has its own organization) also donate money annually to fund research at the University of Pennsylvania school of Veterinary Medicine.

Over the last few years Pennsylvania’s horsemen have collaborated with the breeders to advance the racing program.

“We’ve put over $2 million into the Sire Stakes program,” said Battoni.

The fruit of this labor opened the door to the second level of sire stakes that has proven quite popular. Battoni knows that a majority of the horses campaigning on the circuit, are in fact owned by those outside of Pennsylvania but it’s something he can live with.

“When a Tom Cancelliere comes to Harrisburg and spends millions it’s a good thing for the program,” said Battoni of the New Jersey resident.

With neither Harrah’s nor Mohegan Sun racing year round, a few years ago both tracks built up a significant purse reserve. The horsemen were left with a decision of whether to bump up purses to an incredibly high level just to see all of the money get spent or to cultivate a way to spread the wealth while supporting resident Pennsylvania horsemen.

“We have a program where horsemen who are Pennsylvania residents receive between 30 and 40 percent bonuses,” said Battoni in regard to the plan that supplements horseman’s incomes throughout the year. The program is still on course to be continued in 2013, but Battoni suggested that it could be phased out over time.

Battoni didn’t wish to comment on the recent surge of stallions entering Pennsylvania. His mission is to maintain a relationship with his horsemen and to help grow the racing industry. He’s proud of the competiveness of racing at both Mohegan Sun and Harrah’s Philadelphia that have both attracted a high level of quality horses and impressive driving colonies.

The addition of the Breeders Crown in 2013 is something Pennsylvania horsemen should be very proud of. It represents the best the sport has to offer and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs represents perhaps the best example of what a casino-racetrack partnership should be.

Some have argued that the move to “require” horses to be stabled in Pennsylvania could have a severely negative impact on New Jersey training centers, especially considering the reduced number of racing dates in the Garden State. It’s difficult to look out on the landscape and the number of racing dates that have been added in Pennsylvania and lost in New Jersey over the last few years and suggest that New Jersey has any more right to these horses than Pennsylvania does.

Battoni did hold out a glimmer of hope suggesting that Pennsylvania will not cut itself off from the rest of the world.

“We’ll see how this goes and modify if necessary,” said Battoni, obviously hoping to keep all horsemen happy.