It was disappointing enough that the Legislature didn’t take back some of the $13.5 million that’s gathering dust in the state’s horse racing fund, despite a budget gap and some early signs of hope that Beacon Hill might be tiring of the benefits it granted to the racing industry in 2011.
But now lawmakers are considering whether to double down on Beacon Hill’s dubious investment in horse racing, as part of a broader overhaul of racing and simulcast rules in Massachusetts. In place of the restrictions in the current law, the state gaming commission says it needs the green light to spend up to half the fund “to support the general welfare of the horse racing and simulcasting industry.”
That wide-ranging authority could mean using taxpayer dollars for upgrades at racetracks — or even constructing new ones. In the view of gaming commission chairman Stephen Crosby, the commission needs that leeway to fulfill its 2011 marching orders from the Legislature to preserve racing in the Commonwealth.
The payoff, Crosby told legislators, is that with looser purse strings, “there is a legitimate chance of designing a sustainable strategy . . . for thoroughbred racing in Massachusetts.”
But if horse racing can’t thrive on the generous aid available to it already, maybe lawmakers should instead take the hint. There are better uses of the money.
Thoroughbred racing is on life support because consumer tastes have changed. That shift has hurt farms, trainers, jockeys, vets, and track workers. As conceived, the state’s horse race development fund was intended to stop the slide by making Massachusetts racing more lucrative. Under the current rules, the fund supports purses — the prizes that are distributed at horse races — on the theory that those funds will trickle down to the rest of the industry.
But the fund hasn’t worked as intended — mostly because there are almost no thoroughbred races left for the state to subsidize. Suffolk Downs runs only a few days of races, and is slated to soon close permanently. Forced to look out of state, the commission has been subsidizing races of Massachusetts-bred horses at a track in New York State.
The commission’s legislation would free them to spend money to upgrade the moribund track at Brockton Fairgrounds, a project it wasn’t able to support under the current rules. Or fund a far-fetched proposal to build an equine park in central Massachusetts. Crosby says the commission has no preconceived ideas about how it would spend the money. If granted the authority to use the fund more broadly, he said, the commission would conduct feasibility studies and hold hearings before backing any such project. That’s a welcome commitment.
It’s ultimately up to the Legislature, though, to decide whether to let the commission entertain those kinds of projects. Clearly, lawmakers aren’t ready to pull the plug on the horse fund just yet. But it would be better to let the money pile up, so that the funds will still be available for wiser public uses in the future, than to devise new ways to spend it on thoroughbred racing.