02/09/2010 12:00AM

Racing-casino marriage under strain


TUCSON, Ariz. - There have been some curious developments in racing in the last week or so.

Perhaps most bizarre, and frightening in its portent, was the move by Harrah's Entertainment to offer $70 million to close down its live dog racing in Iowa. The proposal would be accomplished by legislatively removing the requirement for a designated number of live racing days at Iowa's two greyhound tracks. A sponsor has been found - Rep. Mary Mascher of Iowa City - who told the Des Moines Register, "It's an industry that does not have a lot of following. It doesn't make sense to subsidize something Iowans aren't interested in."

It's also common sense to tell the full story, which Mascher conveniently left out. Breeding greyhounds is a sizeable industry in Iowa, with 62 kennels and 146 breeders and owners. Horse people can sniff and say they have too many problems of their own to worry about greyhounds. But this is not just about dogs. It is, potentially, about casinos, those that run horse racing.

Iowa may seem to be a provincial case of little national interest, except it is a scary manifestation of fear felt by horse people nationally.

The 11 casinos of Atlantic City, for example, have used their tremendous legislative clout to prevent the state's three tracks - Meadowlands, Monmouth Park, and Freehold Raceway - from getting slots. A study committee appointed by the governor, with three casino reps but no representation from Thoroughbred or harness racetracks recently suggested ending Thoroughbred racing at the Meadowlands and possibly closing the nation's biggest harness track.

If horsemen were frightened, the Atlantic City casino operators got their own jolt this week, when Gov. Chris Christie, in a press conference, was asked about continuing the discriminatory policy of banning slots at the state's horse tracks. He said - twice - "I'm not ruling it in. I'm not ruling it out. I'm not ruling it up. I'm not ruling it down."

That hardly represented a commitment, but it quickened the pulses of 12,000 owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, drivers, grooms, suppliers, veterinarians, feed men, hotwalkers, truckers, and farm help. They drive economic input, with expanded impact of more than $700 million to the New Jersey economy, according to a study at Rutgers, the state university.

Harrah's made huge investments in building Chester Downs, the gleaming waterfront track just south of Philadelphia, which should allay fears. Except that Harrah's president, former Harvard professor Gary Loveman, boldly raised the question of why casinos needed racing at all at a racing conference in Toronto a year ago. It shook the room, not from applause but from concern and trepidation.

There are, of course, other big casino operators who also operate racetracks - Penn National Gaming comes quickly to mind - with tracks in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Maine that receive tender loving care from the parent. Pompano Park in Florida is operated by Isle of Capri, whose business was built on gaming, and the owners and operators of Pennsylvania's profitable Pittsburgh-area harness track, The Meadows, are casino people. Those casino operators have shown some commitment to racing.

Most recently, the much-covered Aqueduct Entertainment Group racino is being built on the foundation of horse racing. But the upfront bids of $300 million are not invested in horsepower but for its coming racino. The project occupied nine years of stalling and inaction in Albany and now is mired in controversy by a corporate structure being blasted daily by New York City's tabloids, the Post and Daily News. They revile Gov. David Paterson's action in awarding political friends and cronies the huge political gift, and even the softer-spoken New York Times ran an editorial last weekend headed, "Looks Sleazy to Us."

A Las Vegas casino figure, Larry Woolf, once a big man with MGM but now occupied with far lesser Nevada casino enterprises, is being brought in to run the operation. He appears to be the only member of the lucky cast with any operational knowledge of the casino business. Other beneficiaries of Paterson's largesse include builders, politicians, and friends of the powerful New York minister and former legislator Floyd Flake. You will have to search long and diligently to find anyone particularly interested in the welfare of horses or horse racing in the composition of the winning group.

While all of this is going on, 679 slots at Fort Erie racetrack in Ontario - more than half of the track's total - will be eliminated by the provincial Lottery and Gaming corporation to put supply more in line with demand; Michigan horsemen are being urged by their leaders to say no to legislation offering slots but with exorbitant tax rates, while newspapers urge legislative approval; and a casino versus track battle is about to erupt in the Massachusetts legislature.

As Alice discovered in Wonderland, things are getting curioser and curioser.