Old foes gird for slots parlor fight
Racetrack owners vie for gambling payday
They have competed for years, running suburban racetracks just 15 minutes apart, chasing the dwindling dollars of a fading industry.
Though they were united by a common cause to save racing, their big personalities have clashed for decades, and they do not hide their distaste for each other.
Now the dawn of casino gambling in Massachusetts has revived the rivalry of Gary Piontkowski and George Carney and this time with much more at stake. They are competing for the sole slot machine parlor license authorized by the state’s new casino law, a golden ticket that could ensure the future of one track and the demise of the other.
“No track can survive without [slots] any place in the United States,’’ said Piontkowski, president of Plainridge Racecourse, the harness racing track in Plainville. Racing at Plainridge cannot continue indefinitely unless the track wins the rights to add slots, he said.
Carney, the owner of Raynham Park, which lost live dog racing at the end of 2009 but retains simulcast betting, was slightly less pessimistic. “I could keep it going because I’ve been at it all these years,’’ he said, “but it would be a grind.’’
The competitors are longtime business rivals, personal adversaries, and, in many ways, polar opposites.
Piontkowski is a polished businessman from the textile industry and a politically connected Republican.
Carney is a blunt-talking high-school dropout and well-wired into Democratic politics.
Opposites are supposed to attract, but these savvy suburban track owners do not much like each other.
“We’ve had a lot of business battles, and, yes, it has turned personal sometimes,’’ said Piontkowski, when asked about Carney in an interview at Plainridge.
“I don’t dislike him,’’ Carney said of Piontkowski, not very convincingly, during a conversation at Raynham Park. “We’ve just always had a bad relationship.’’
The owners of the two tracks, separated by a short drive on Interstate 495, each plan to bid to host the slot machine parlor, which will probably be the first gambling property to open in Massachusetts under the new law.
The casino bill signed by Governor Deval Patrick last November allows up to three large-scale gambling resorts, each costing at least a half-billion dollars. Much of the discussion in recent months has been about the casino giants vying to win a resort license in three regions of the state.
A less-hyped part of the law, included after years of lobbying by the state’s racetracks, authorizes the slot machine parlor, which can be built anywhere. It requires a more modest investment, though still no less than $125 million in capital investments and a $25 million licensing fee.
No major casino operator has announced that it wants to compete with the racetracks to build the slot machine parlor, which will be taxed at an effective rate of 49 percent, nearly double the 25 percent rate to be levied on the casino resorts.
But there is no guarantee that the slot machine license will go to one of the tracks, and industry specialists expect more competitors to join the sweepstakes.
In fact, Springfield native Vincent Iuliano, a retired businessman who controls 205 acres on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Charlton, said he has attracted interest from several casino developers, including Pinnacle Entertainment and Delaware North.
He does not know Carney or Piontkowski. “I heard they’re not bad guys,’’ he said. “But this isn’t about personality; it’s location. I have the best location in the state.’’
Iuliano’s land is not far from the sites proposed for huge casino resorts in Palmer and Brimfield, but slot machine parlors can thrive in the shadow of major gambling resorts, said Bill Friedman, a casino consultant who ran two Las Vegas slot parlors in the 1970s.
“I was on the Strip against the greatest casinos in the world, the greatest entertainment in the world, and they fed me,’’ Iuliano said.
Specialists expect more competitors to emerge as the state licensing process gets underway.
“Slot operations tend to be more Spartan,’’ said William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno. “They tend to have lower operating costs, and they tend to be somewhat more down market. But that can also be a very viable market. It’s not going to go uncontested.’’
Carney, who is 83, has been in racing for nearly his entire life. He started work at the track at 14, making $4 a night, he said, which was a lot for the early 1940s.
“I was making more leading out dogs to the track than the poor teacher who was trying to teach me English and spelling,’’ said Carney. He said his interest in education dropped off quickly.
He went as far as ninth grade, but worked his way up the ranks in racing and bought the track in the late 1960s. Most people his age are long retired, but Carney has no plans to stop working. “You hear it all the time: So-and-so retired, [and then] so-and-so died,’’ he said.
At Raynham, there may be no starker sign of the decline of racing in Massachusetts than the crab grass growing on the dirt oval, where no greyhound has competed since the state banned live dog racing in a referendum. Carney envisions a slot machine parlor fitting harmoniously into a large new development that would include a potential train station, if a long-debated rail extension is built, and businesses that serve commuters. He has interviewed eight to 10 casino companies as potential partners.
“We have a great location, and we’re going to be tough to beat,’’ he said.
Piontkowski, 56, grew up in Ware, and started work at 16, loading dye kettles in a stifling textile mill. He attended Salem State College and had intended to be a history teacher, when, at age 21 he got a call from the mill owner. The boss dyer had dropped dead from a heart attack; Piontkowski was offered the job, which paid more than an entry-level history teacher. He took it, worked his way up, and eventually owned the mill.
He traces his affinity for harness racing to his childhood and visits to a track in Hinsdale, N.H. on family trips.
“You could get up real close at Hinsdale, see the action, hear the horses breathing and the wheels turning,’’ he said. “I fell in love with it.’’
At 21, he invested $1,000 in a one-third share of a horse, the first of 300 to 400 horses he has owned. He still has shares in three horses, including one he owns with New England Patriots lineman Vince Wilfork.
Governor William F. Weld named Piontkowski head of the Racing Commission in 1991. He left in 1993 due to an illness and later became manager of a harness track in Foxborough, which has since closed.
He helped develop the current track in Plainville, which opened in 1999. From the beginning, Piontkowski said, he and his partners have been candid about their desire to bring in slot machines. They are ready to pursue the slot license without a partner from the casino industry, he said.
He, too, is confident. “We have a live, thriving racetrack,’’ Piontkowski said, in a jab at Carney, who cannot hold live races. “He has a handful of employees running an OTB operation.’’
Although Piontkowski said he respects Carney’s business acumen, he added: “We’re fierce competitors. And if he has an application, may the best man win.’’