Casinos, race tracks, and money

Next month will mark the 30th anniversary of my one and only visit to a casino. On Labor Day weekend 1980, a group of us drove all night through the desert from Fort Huachuca, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada. I may have tossed a few coins in a slot machine, but the highlight for me was seeing George Carlin perform. Today, my lack of interest in gambling continues, but that doesn’t prevent me from being fascinated by the Commonwealth’s latest flirtation with casinos and slot parlors.

Throughout the recent debate, we continuously heard of the state’s “four race tracks” but many of us are unfamiliar with what and where they are. A little online reading disclosed the following: There are two race tracks in the Boston area. Suffolk Downs in East Boston provides live thoroughbred (i.e., horse) racing from May through November with nine races per day, four days per week. There’s also simulcast horse racing seven days per week. This permits you to sit in the clubhouse and bet on a race you’re watching on TV. The second Boston-area track is Wonderland Greyhound Park located in nearby Revere.

In the 2008 state election, a referendum to ban dog racing was passed by Massachusetts voters with 1,662,352 favoring the ban and 1,303,708 opposed (in Lowell, the tally was 15,925 for the ban and 13,791 against). This statewide ban on live racing took effect on January 1, 2010 although the legislature extended the deadline for greyhound simulcasting until July 31, 2010.

Wonderland ceased live racing last September, but continued with daily simulcasting of dogs, horses and trotters. In the meantime, the owners of Suffolk Downs purchased a controlling interest in the Wonderland real estate. Essentially, the two Boston area tracks are under the same ownership.

The third Massachusetts race track is Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park, located just north of Taunton near the junction of Routes 24 and 495. Raynham is owned by a politically active individual named George Carney who has the strong backing of powerful legislators such as Senator Marc Pacheco of Taunton and Representative David Flynn of Bridgewater. Raynham continued live dog racing into December 2009 and still has daily simulcast racing.

The fourth and final Massachusetts track is the Plainridge Race Course in the town of Plainville which is south of the Wrentham Factory Outlets and the junction of Routes 95 and 495. This facility features “live harness racing” three days per week from April to November, and simulcasting seven days per week. Plainridge is owned by Gary Piontkowski, a supporter (and supportee, I suppose) of US Senator Scott Brown. According to a recent Globe story, Piontkowski (and his family) have donated $3250 to Brown, attended Brown’s swearing-in, and co-owned a horse with one of Brown’s daughters. Also according to the Globe, at the same time that Senator Brown was voting against unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans, he was also lobbying both Senate President Therese Murray and Governor Deval Patrick for slots for his pal Piontkowski.

On July 30, 2010, a House-Senate conference committee announced a compromise gambling bill which provided for three resort style casinos, specifying that one would be located in the eastern part of the state, a second in the southeast, and a third in the western part of the state. The compromise bill also included two slot machine faciliteis “to be selected from the state’s four race tracks.”

Although Governor Patrick had always opposed stand-alone slot parlors while favoring resort casinos, he publicly stated during the conference committee’s deliberations that he would agree to one slot parlor provided it was awarded through an open and competitive bid process. In sending the final bill back to the legislature stripped of the two slot parlors earmarked for race tracks, the Governor seems to have ended the quests for casino gambling in Massachusetts for this year at least.

So what happened? I think we witnessed a struggle between constituent services and money with money winning out. With Speaker DeLeo advocating for the Boston tracks, a group of powerful legislators backing Raynham, and US Senator Brown lobbying for Plainridge, all of the state’s tracks had powerful proponents. Even though it provided only two slot parlors, the final legislation took care of all four race tracks.

Back in early July, the Globe reported (1) that Suffolk Downs had obtained an option to purchase Wonderland which is only a half-mile away and (2) that Suffolk Downs already had plans for a full resort casino with 5000 slots and 200 table games to start, with additional plans for a 500 room hotel, restaurants and shops. By requiring that one of the three casinos be in “eastern Massachusetts”, the legislative compromise nearly guaranteed a full casino for the Suffolk Downs-Wonderland consortium, satisfying Speaker DeLeo’s interests. With Suffolk Downs and Wonderland taken care of, that would earmark the two slot parlors for Raynham and Plainridge, thereby providing for the Taunton-area legislators and US Senator Brown. That would leave the Southeastern Mass and Western Mass resort casinos as the only new facilities to emerge from the legislation.

The grant of a casino or a slot parlor, however, is not a license to print money. If it were, Rhode Island’s Twin Rivers slot facility would not have filed for bankruptcy last summer. The gambling pie is of finite size, so the more facilities, the less revenue for each (and the less each would be willing to pay the state for a license).

Politically, I think this plays pretty well for the Governor. Saying that he was all that stood in the way of “no bid contracts for race track owners” hits a lot of positive buttons with the electorate. But when it comes to casinos, money dwarfs politics, constituent services, and just about everything else. The best illustration of that came in a Globe article by Sean Murphy back in 2007 when the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe was pursuing a casino in Middleborough, Massachusetts. The high-rolling backers of that effort were simultaneously funding the anti-casino forces arrayed against and expansion of gambling referendum in neighboring Rhode Island, providing the clergy and retired law enforcement front men of the Save Our State anti casino organization with more than $2 million in funding. Murphy summed up his 2007 article with this:

The casino executives’ . . . willingness to spend heavily on antigambling messages illustrates how far developers will go to win casino rights worth billions of dollars. It also demonstrates the intense competition in an industry dominated by deep-pocketed casino moguls, who are circling Massachusetts looking for prime spots in the wake of Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to open three resort casinos in the state.

I don’t think those “deep-pocketed casino moguls” wanted to share their business with politically connected race track owners who, without the infusion of new revenue from slots, would soon be out of business anyway.