The horse-racing industry lobbied hard to legalize casinos in Massachusetts, and it’s already reaped enough of a reward. The 2011 casino law set aside a cut of the revenues from the state’s future slot parlor to fatten horse-racing purses, which will translate into millions of dollars for the state’s horse trainers, breeders, and veterinarians. No other special-interest group got its own sinecure baked into the casino law. Horsemen will get the money, in perpetuity, no matter where the state’s three casinos and slot parlor open.
But lawmakers did draw a line: Nowhere did the Legislature instruct the new Massachusetts Gaming Commission to give the state’s only two remaining racetracks, Suffolk Downs and Plainridge, a preference over other applicants. The law set out 19 detailed criteria for the commission to use in evaluating the applications, down to where the slot machines will be manufactured. Whether or not the applicant has a racetrack was not on the list.
Now, as the Gaming Commission nears a verdict later this week on the first of the licenses, the commissioners need to be clear about the standards for their decision — and it would be a misreading of the law to listen to pleas that it give extra points to racetracks. Suffolk Downs has applied for one of the casino licenses, and Plainridge for the slot parlor license. The commission should judge the Plainridge proposal, like its rivals in Raynham and Leominster, only on its broader revenue and job-creation benefits for the Commonwealth. Similarly, when and if the Suffolk Downs plan goes head-to-head with Steve Wynn’s Everett proposal for the casino license in Greater Boston, the presence of horse racing at Suffolk Downs shouldn’t factor into the commission’s decision.
If the commission doesn’t grant a license to either track, it wouldn’t force them to close. It would just force the horse industry to make do on the millions of dollars in aid it’s already set to receive under the casino law, money that was supposed to boost the sport’s popularity and compensate horsemen from possible lost gambling revenue from the casinos.
In deciding how to respond to the pressure from the horsemen to favor applications from the tracks, the commission has more than just the immediate licensing process to consider. In many states, the pattern has been for tracks to keep dialing up their demands, asking for ever more state help. Indeed, that’s what seems to be happening here; when the Legislature gave racing interests a hefty cut of casino revenue, that was supposed to keep them viable — but now they want the commission to give extra weight to the tracks. Enough is enough. The commission would save itself a lot of grief by drawing a line now against any further favoritism for an industry that’s already received plenty.