At the Red Mile, horse racing’s ‘evolution’ looks like a casino

September 26, 2015
Instant racing machines in Lexington's first legal gambling parlor at Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

Instant racing machines at the Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram


I went to the Red Mile last week to check out what the 140-year-old harness track calls “The Evolution of Horse Racing.”

It was sunny and mild, the kind of afternoon I hope for each April and October so I can slip away to Keeneland for a few hours. I love to watch the horses run, place a few bets and soak up the atmosphere.

This afternoon, the weather didn’t matter. Horse racing had evolved indoors. I found a cavernous hall filled with 902 machines that flashed and chimed amid pulsing background music.

The man at the front desk said this $42 million facility had been busy since it opened Sept. 12. I must have caught a lull. There were only a couple of dozen patrons, an even mix of men and women, blacks and whites. Most were older than me. A few had canes; at least two used walkers.

The next thing I noticed was there were no horses. Amazing! Horse racing had evolved to the point that horses were no longer necessary.

When I walked in, the man at the front desk issued me a “rewards” card on a red lanyard, an instruction sheet and a $5 voucher. I chose a machine with a comfy seat near the bar and got started.

That’s when I saw horses, or at least grainy images of them. They were in videos that flashed briefly on the machine’s tiny screen after I placed a bet and pushed a few buttons.

The machines looked like slots. The hall looked like a casino. I had to remind myself that this joint venture of the Red Mile and Keeneland was really The Evolution of Horse Racing, presumably “as it was meant to be.”

What distinguishes these machines from slots, proponents say, is that they are forms of pari-mutuel wagering, and winners are chosen by the outcome of thousands of previously run horse races rather than by random number generators.

I placed a bet on the machine and chose my numbers — the order of finish for three horses that once raced against one another. To help me choose, I could look at charts indicating past performances of the horse, jockey and trainer.

I lost my first couple of free voucher dollars trying to figure out how the machine worked. On my third bet, lights flashed and bells clanged and the machine told me I was a winner. I printed a voucher and discovered I had won $84, although I’m not sure how.

I tried a couple more machines before deciding it was a good time to cash my voucher and call it a day.

The Family Foundation, a conservative activist group, has gone to court to challenge the legality of these “historical racing” machines. The case before Franklin Circuit Court is complex, and it likely will take a couple of years to decide.

The legal question comes down to whether these machines are pari-mutuel wagering, which is legal in Kentucky, or slots, which are not. Can something that looks and quacks like a duck actually be an evolved horse?

If the tracks lose in court, they may have recovered their investment by then. The General Assembly also could change the law. Legislators may not want to give up this new source of tax revenue, not to mention the 200 new jobs at the Red Mile and more at facilities near Henderson and Franklin.

I have nothing against gambling, when it is enjoyed responsibly by people who can afford it. But from a public policy standpoint, gambling encourages a “something for nothing” mentality among politicians and voters that a modern, progressive state can be created without raising anyone’s taxes.

Many horse people argue that expanded gambling revenue is essential to the survival of their industry. I understand their concern. Without the promise of this new facility, the Red Mile probably would have been redeveloped years ago. Neither harness nor Thoroughbred racing are as popular as they once were.

However, the experiences of other states show that when expanded-gambling revenue starts flowing, politicians lose interest in subsidizing the horse industry.

There are no easy answers to preserving Kentucky’s signature horse industry. But horsemen could take pointers from the once-struggling and now-thriving bourbon whiskey industry: Improve your product and do a better job of marketing to make it more popular.

Otherwise, it can be a fine line between evolution and devolution.

Would slots at tracks be long-term cure or poison?

June 25, 2009

I’ve had several seriously ill friends and relatives suffer through chemotherapy. They do it because it is a short-term poison that often results in a long-term cure.

With the General Assembly now meeting in special session, I can’t help but wonder if the proposal to allow slot machines at horse-racing tracks doesn’t amount to chemotherapy in reverse: a short-term cure that could turn out to be long-term poison.

It’s easy to dismiss some of the arguments for slot machines, such as balancing the state budget and funding new school buildings. Expanded gambling won’t pay for state government and education in the long run any more than it has in other states.

The proper way to do that is a modern tax system that raises enough money so Kentucky can invest in creating a successful 21st century economy and society. The only way to create that modern tax system is for citizens and politicians to be honest with themselves and one another, and make some tough choices.

The problem I have with gambling as a substitute for honest taxation is that it’s based on the myth of easy money.

Sure, slot machines at racetracks would prompt some Kentucky gamblers to lose their money here rather than in other states. It also might attract some out-of-state gamblers.

But a lot of that money would go into the pockets of gambling interests, soak up discretionary income now spent elsewhere in Kentucky’s economy and create more social costs. If slot machines at racetracks were a panacea, the states that now have them wouldn’t be struggling with many of the same problems Kentucky faces.

The only reason to even consider slot machines, in my view, is to preserve Kentucky’s horse industry. It is one of Kentucky’s claims to fame and a vital piece of an agricultural economy that protects irreplaceable rural land from development.

As the Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported last Sunday and Monday, the horse industry’s arguments for slot machines may be overstated, but the problems are real. Kentucky’s race purses and breeder incentives are no longer competitive with other states. No business can survive if it’s not competitive.

While the horse industry’s public face may be the wealthy owners of Central Kentucky’s showplace farms, its heart and soul are the small breeders and owners, merchants, farriers, veterinarians and others who make their living in the industry. They will follow the money, and who can blame them?

For Kentucky’s horse industry to be healthy, racing and breeding must be economically competitive. Other states have become more competitive with money generated by expanded gambling. That might be a quick cure for Kentucky’s horse industry, but could it be a long-term poison?

The danger, as Cheves’ articles pointed out, is that slot machines at racetracks can go from subsidizing horse racing to crowding it out. Kentucky’s long-term economic interests aren’t tied to the owners of racetracks so much as to the horse breeders, owners and workers who depend on them.

Horse racing thrived during the 20th century because it was the only way many people could gamble. That’s no longer the case. There are now many quicker, cheaper and more accessible ways to gamble — and, it seems, new ones are being invented every day.

The only way for horse racing to survive is for the industry to build a fan base around the enjoyment of watching and wagering on competition among equine athletes.

Putting slot machines at racetracks would clearly be in the best short-term interests of both state government and the horse industry. But what about the long term? That’s the real issue the General Assembly must face.

In the long run, will slot machines improve Kentucky’s economy and quality of life or detract from it? Will they help save the horse industry or hasten its demise?

Would more gambling be good for Kentucky?

April 7, 2009

I’m not much of a gambler, but I don’t have anything against it.

I’ll probably lose a few dollars at Keeneland this month, and a few more dollars at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, and have fun doing it. Plus, I’ll know I did my small part to keep beautiful horses grazing in bluegrass fields.

I buy a lottery ticket every now and then — when the jackpot gets really big — even though I know I probably have a better chance of being struck by lightning than cashing the ticket.

With the economy hurting and state government revenues far below the budget, the governor is likely to call legislators back to Frankfort this summer to consider tax reform. I hope they create real reform, because we badly need a tax system that produces enough reliable revenue to meet Kentucky’s needs.

Odds are, the discussion will lead to more talk about expanded gambling. The drumbeat for slot machines at racetracks and casinos has been getting louder for years, and this economy is causing more people to listen.

I wish I knew the answer to the big question: Would more options for gambling be good or bad for Kentucky?

Let’s look at the pros and cons. We won’t get bogged down in numbers, because I think most of the numbers thrown around are little more than wild guesses. It’s like many forms of economic forecasting: They make weather forecasting look like exact science and voodoo almost seem respectable.

First, let’s take an easy argument: Slot machines or casinos would keep many Kentuckians from driving across the Ohio River to gamble. That’s probably true.

Here’s another argument: Expanded gambling would bring a lot of additional revenue to state government, perhaps reducing other tax burdens. That may be true, although I suspect it would generate a lot less money than supporters claim.

The trouble is that the extra revenue reflects only one side of the ledger. For each million of gambling revenue that comes into state coffers, how many million more must be shifted from the pockets of Kentucky gamblers into the pockets of the gambling industry?

What’s the social cost of expanded gambling? In other words, how many children will go unfed? How much rent and child support will go unpaid? Sure, some of that new state revenue will go to offset gambling’s collateral damage, but it probably won’t be enough. When has Kentucky ever adequately funded social services?

Will expanded gambling grow Kentucky’s economy? We will keep many of our current gamblers from taking their money across the Ohio River. We may even lure some gamblers to Kentucky from neighboring states.

But we won’t be making Kentucky’s economic pie much bigger; we’ll just be slicing it differently. For the most part, new money spent on gambling would be money now spent on something else in Kentucky.

For all of those reasons, I’ve never thought government-assisted gambling was good public policy. Besides, gambling sends taxpayers the same unrealistic message it sends gamblers: You don’t need to work for the success you want, you just need to have Lady Luck on your side every now and then.

The best argument I’ve seen for expanded gambling in Kentucky is that it would help keep those pretty horses in bluegrass fields — and all of the jobs and economic activity they create. Not to mention the positive image the horse industry gives Kentucky. Horses are our international brand — and a good one, at that.

Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry wants racetracks to be allowed to have slot machines to provide more money for higher race purses and breeder incentives. That’s because other states with expanded gambling are doing that, threatening Kentucky’s preeminence.

Anyone who has been the parent of a teenager is suspicious of the “but everyone else is doing it” argument. In this case, though, the problem seems legitimate, even if the proposed solution is, at best, a short-term fix.

For one thing, I think it’s naïve to think Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry will be able to keep gambling to itself. There’s just too much money at stake. Other powerful interests will want slot machines, or full casinos, or some of the gambling money the horse industry hopes to keep for race purses and breeder incentives.

Besides, what’s the long-term future of any industry that depends on something else to prop it up? If thoroughbred racing hopes to survive and thrive in the long term, it must create more fans. Other tracks must cater to fans the way Keeneland and Churchill Downs do. Racing must find a way to support itself, not find something else to support it.

Of course, all of that is easier said than done. And if it can be done, it won’t happen quickly. Racing, like the economy, is where it is. So what should we do now?

Would more options for gambling be good or bad for Kentucky?

It’s a question we all need to ask ourselves, ask each other and ask our elected leaders. Because if there were ever a year it could happen, I’ll bet this is it.