The people's voice of reason

Horsemen say that gambling bills have no incentive for horse racing

Horse racing is the "the sport of kings" and for decades it was the dominant form of legal gambling. For the first seven decades of the Twentieth Century the three biggest sports in this country were boxing, baseball, and horse racing. The Alabama House of Representatives is poised to vote on a constitutional amendment to allow a massive expansion of legal gambling in the state; but Alabama's horse owners say there is nothing in either version of the bill for horse racing.

The Alabama Gazette spoke with Dr. David Harrington, a veterinarian and thoroughbred owner.

"We commissioned a study through the racing commission ten years ago," Harrington said. "A firm from Minnesota came down ten years ago and estimated that it would be less than a million dollars to get things going. It would cost more now."

Dr. Harrington said that he spoke with Dr. Louis Benefield (effectively the manager of the McGregor holdings) about resuming horse racing at the Birmingham Racecourse.

"They do not want horse racing at the Birmingham Racecourse," Dr. Harrington said. "I have tried to have an amicable working relationship with them."

The Birmingham Racecourse was built for horse racing; but when the track ran into financial trouble Shorter dog track owner Milton McGregor bought the track. McGregor has since died and left his holdings to his children. Dr. Benefield is Milton's son-in-law.

Harrington explained that currently the McGregors have 1100 machines at the Birmingham Racecourse.

"These are historical horse racing machines," Harrington said. "If you have ever seen an HHR machine they are a glorified slot machine. They are making their money on the backs of the horse people."

The Birmingham Racecourse also offers simulcast racing of horse; they just don't have any horse races in the state of Alabama.

Harrington said that he has tried to speak with the Chief of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians about horse racing; but has failed to get them interested,

Harrington said that the bills that are in the Legislature now have no tourist attraction element to them.

Thoroughbreds are a breed of horse bred for athleticism. They are the breed in the Kentucky Derby and the other triple crown races.

"We own six thoroughbred mares," Harrington said. "We will have six thoroughbred babies this spring. We will have to move our operation to another state," without a return to racing in Alabama.

Harrington explained that racetracks pay incentives for winners that are born in the state in which they are racing. Since there are no incentives for a racehorse to be born in Alabama, fewer and fewer are.

"In 1991 there were over 190 bred Alabama foals born in Alabama," Harrington said. "Now, there were less than 14 last year."

Harrington said that one Alabama breeder has a facility for forty mares, but to qualify for the Kentucky bred incentives, "She has moved her horses to Kentucky."

Harrington said that since there is no racing in Alabama, his wife, Diane. (who is also a veterinarian) is in Louisiana with their racehorses.

Harrington said that if the state were to bring back horse racing, more farms would operate here, they would buy hay and farm equipment and pay workers. The tourists who would come to see the races from out of state would stay in hotel rooms and eat at restaurants and they would play the other gambling machines while they are visiting.

"We are talking about a huge economic impact," Harrington said.

The Alabama Gazette asked if the dog tracks at Shorter, Mobile, and Eutaw could be used for horse racing.

"No, they are too short," Dr. Harrington said. "You will break your horses down. You would have to enlarge the tracks."

Harrington insisted that the Birmingham Racecourse is the ideal location.

Harrington said that the State of Indiana made their state friendly to horse racing and now they get $2 billion added to the GDP annually from the horse racing.

"We are dependent on something happening for us in Montgomery," Harrington said. "All we are asking for is a small portion of the revenue on the HHR and the simulcast horse racing. You are making money from the horsemen, why don't you give them something back?"

Harrington said that that revenue would be used to offer large purses for the racehorses. Bigger prizes attract the better horses. The betting public from out of state will come to see the name horses.

"There is no reason why we can't do this here," Harrington said. "We have got a good climate, land that is affordable, and property taxes that are affordable."

Harrington said that too begin with the track would offer 12 days of racing.

"We would pattern it after Churchill Downs in Kentucky," Harrington said. "They offer 8 races per day."

Dr. Harrington was frustrated by the reception he and the Alabama horse owners have gotten from their legislators in Montgomery.

"You have got to have money behind you, or you have got to have people with power behind you and we are just a small association," Harrington said. "We are talking about helping the state. We are talking about growing the economy. We are talking about the things they should be talking about. I am just baffled why we don't get some traction."

"The bottom line is that live thoroughbred racing would be appositive positive for the state."

If the members of the House vote to concur with the version of the gambling bill that passed the Senate on March 6 the bill as passed by the Senate will go to voters in the fall. If the House votes to nonconcur then a conference committee will likely be appointed to draft a third version of the bill. The horse owners of Alabama hope that version of the legislation will include some provision for promotion of horse racing and the animals they love.

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