Updated on 09/16/2011 9:56AM

Racing-on-racing violence everywhere


TUCSON, Ariz. - A new year dawns, and there is life after death - at least for horse racing.

Some members of the national press persist in proclaiming the demise of the sport, but they're wrong. No sport with this much infighting could possibly be dead. As 2003 breaks from the gate, there are battles all over the lot - in Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, Trenton, Syracuse and Utica, Salem, N.H., and even in little Erie in northwestern Pennsylvania.

There are other signs of life, too.

Slots make the racing heart beat faster.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is enthusiastic about the future.

Harness racing, pronounced dead a number of times, is alive and kicking. Eight harness horses - four pacers and four trotters - each won more than a million dollars in 2002, and 17 passed the million dollar lifetime earnings mark, bringing the total number of harness millionaires to 307.

Still, there are disputes everywhere about who gets what, and when, and how.

In Illinois, the issue is recapture, which assures tracks of reimbursement from purse accounts for losses in live racing handle resulting from simulcasting. It has been a source of discontent for horsemen since its introduction in the mid-1990's, and has resulted in a boycott of the entry box at Illinois harness tracks three times in five years, including now, with racing shut down by a horsemen's boycott at Balmoral and Maywood Park.

In Ontario control of simulcasting is the issue. Ontario horsemen, who now get 50 percent of parimutuel revenues and slots money, want veto rights - they call it approval rights - over Woodbine's far-flung simulcasting system. A shutdown of racing at Woodbine was averted this week when both sides agreed to a 90-day cooling off period.

In Pennsylvania, Thoroughbred horsemen and Philadelphia Park were at it again, but the horsemen - facing a cold winter on Philadelphia's dreary streets and seeing the replacement of Thoroughbreds with harness horses at Rockingham near Boston - signed on for another year.

Rockingham's ousted Thoroughbred horsemen, meanwhile, say they will block simulcasting at that track.

In New Jersey there is fighting between the legislature and governor over a new racing commission, a fight between Atlantic City and horsemen over slots, and a fight between the existing commission and the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. The Association's assets were frozen by a judge who said its lavish spending habits and reduction in health care benefits for backstretch personnel, "while lining the pockets of politicians to the tune of $100,000 is - in a word - disproportionate, and raises serious questions about whether the NJTHA is fulfilling its fiduciary obligations." Three bidders to remodel The Meadowlands also are fighting among themselves, calling each other's plans inadequate or unimaginative.

Meanwhile, Magna Entertainment is buying Pimlico and Laurel and has bought Flamboro, a successful slots-fueled harness track in Ontario. MTR Gaming, operators of Mountaineer Park, is buying Scioto Downs, the longtime Columbus, Ohio, harness racing showplace and plans to build a new track in Erie, Penn., over the dry bones of two that perished there. But MTR is being sued by Magna, which owns the nearby Meadows track near Pittsburgh.

Two outfits - Philadelphia Park and a company put together by former Penn National official Joe Lashinger Jr. - want to build tracks in desolate Chester, Pa., an economic disaster area just south of Philadelphia on the Delaware River waterfront; Centaur has bought Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland and wants to build another track in western Pennsylvania to tap the Youngstown, Ohio, market; Yonkers Raceway, on one of the nation's busiest highways, the Deegan Expressway 10 miles north of Manhattan, has unveiled plans for a complete redevelopment of its plant and racetrack with the arrival of slots; and the speculative Las Vegas entrepreneur Shawn Scott, who bought Delta Downs in Louisiana for $10 million and quickly sold it to Boyd Gaming for $120 million when slots arrived, now has taken charge of Vernon Downs (in central New York between Syracuse and Utica), where slots also are coming, and given the track a $17.5 million infusion. The New York Racing and Wagering Board closed the track, but a judge gave Scott and Vernon 30 days to straighten things out.

Demeaning or not, slots are motivating and exciting a pretty lively corpse.