A political deal struck six years ago to prop up the state's languishing horse-racing industry could be in jeopardy.
State legislators are proposing to tap into the $15 million racehorse development fund, long criticized as a special-interest giveaway, to boost spending in other areas. In a budget proposal unveiled this week, state Senator Karen E. Spilka, who chairs the Committee on Ways and Means, designated the $15 million “to support pressing environmental, conservation and recreation needs.”
“Much of the fund’s assets have remained unused, and given the state’s tight fiscal situation, we direct the money to protect and enhance our natural resources for the benefit of residents across Massachusetts,” Spilka said Wednesday in a statement.
The 2011 casino law mandates that a slice of the casino revenue be earmarked for purses, the cash prizes paid to a winning horse’s owners, trainers, and jockey. The fund also provides subsidies for horse breeders and benefits for industry workers.
Legislators hoped the fund would breathe new life into horse racing, a sport whose popularity has dimmed. But some are now wondering whether it’s time to reconsider.
“The bottom line is that there’s a pot of money that was supposed to go to horse racing but it hasn’t panned out the way it was expected or hoped,” said Representative Bradley Jones Jr., the House minority leader. “The question now is how best to use that money.”
Jones said he wants to redirect half of the money earmarked for the horse industry to community preservation funding. Jones said one of the fund’s original goals was to help preserve horse-breeding farms as open space.
Despite the state’s fiscal struggles, tapping the fund will face opposition. The proposal would not only have to pass the full Senate, but also the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo has long been a reliable ally of the horse-racing industry.
His district includes a portion of Suffolk Downs, a racetrack in East Boston, and is home to many of its workers. The fund was considered crucial to winning DeLeo’s support for the casino bill, which authorized as many as three resort casinos in Massachusetts.
DeLeo’s office declined to comment Wednesday.
William Lagorio, president of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, one of two organizations that represent trainers, jockeys, and horse breeders, said the fund gives horse racing a fighting chance.
“We’ve been in a crisis for several years, but instead of taking money away, state leaders should put their heads together to find a solution,” he said.
Lagorio said he has been in discussions with national horse track operators about building a new track in Massachusetts. A rival group, New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, is also pursuing a plan for a new track and equine center in Central Massachusetts.
While thoroughbred racing has fallen on hard times, the state’s only harness racing track, Plainridge Park, has enjoyed a resurgence since a casino opened next door in June 2015.
With the slot parlor helping to bring in a rush of new customers, the track is hosting more than 100 race days this year, including July 28, when the purse will be $250,000. Plainridge credits some of its success to the millions it has received from the racehorse fund.
At the track Wednesday, one patron said scrapping the fund would endanger the track.
“We certainly don’t want it to close,” said Don, who asked that only his first name be used. “We’ve had a turnaround down here. Let’s keep it going.”
Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.