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Deal near to keep Pennsylvania's race horses running

Jason Cato
| Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, 5:35 p.m.
A driver warms up his horse before races Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, at The Meadows in North Strabane, Washington County.
Jason Cato | Trib Total Media
A driver warms up his horse before races Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, at The Meadows in North Strabane, Washington County.

The 2015 horse-racing season in Pennsylvania received a temporary stay of execution Friday from Gov. Tom Wolf, who threatened to halt live racing at the state's six tracks if a deal could not be reached to pay for the industry's oversight.

State lawmakers and representatives from the Department of Agriculture and the racing industry in the past two weeks made significant progress on a long-term deal for financing the State Gaming Fund, though no official agreement is in place. A comprehensive pact could be finalized next week, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding wrote in a statement.

“This has not been an easy process, but it has been an incredibly productive process,” Redding said. “We have come a long way since last Friday, when the future of racing in Pennsylvania was very much in doubt.”

Any decision about whether to suspend live racing in the state will wait at least one week, he said.

Wolf last week pledged to stop live racing before Halloween if there was no deal.

The Meadows Racetrack & Casino and the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association declined to comment because of the negotiations, a spokesman said.

More than 100 people flocked to The Meadows' harness racetrack Friday, the first day of live racing at the Washington County venue after a scheduled three-week break. Many studied the daily racing book before placing pari-mutuel wagers at the racing book and heading outside or to the windows to watch the action.

Sylvester Richardson, 57, of Bridgeville was one of the few who sat in the grandstand on a chilly, overcast afternoon. He said he hoped a deal could be reached so he wouldn't have to travel to Wheeling, W.Va., for dog races.

“I come here a lot, and I win a lot,” Richardson said a few minutes after narrowly losing out on a trifecta, having picked the top three horses but in the wrong finishing order. “I try to get here every day they are racing.”

He said he is glad racing at the North Strabane track will continue, even if temporarily, to give the sides time to reach a permanent deal.

“I kind of figured that,” he said of the reprieve. “There would have been a lot of people complaining.”

Norm Celaschi typically visits The Meadows once a week, a practice he has kept up for more than 40 years. He once owned horses that raced at the track and never thought the state would suspend live racing, despite the threats.

“I can't see that happening,” said Celaschi, 59, of Charleroi. “It's got too many people involved, too many jobs.”

Pennsylvania's horse-racing industry reports that it employs 23,000 and contributes $1.6 billion to the state economy.

The State Racing Fund was established in 1981 to support horse-racing operations. Most of the fund's money goes toward equine drug testing to ensure horse safety.

It also covers expenses of the Horse Racing and Harness Racing commissions, which regulate the industry.

State officials point out that wagers on horse racing in Pennsylvania dropped 71 percent between 2001 and 2014, falling from $1.46 billion to $427.5 million.

A tax on those bets that benefit the racing fund fell by a comparable percentage, contributing just $11 million last year after reaching nearly $32 million in 2001.

That led to a $9 million annual shortfall that Wolf refused to make taxpayers cover. About $20 million a year is needed to run the industry, state officials said.

More than $4 million in racing fund deficits during the past two years have been covered by money from the Race Horse Development Fund, which receives a portion of annual gambling revenues from slot machines in Pennsylvania's 12 casinos.

Last year, slot machine play pumped $242 million into the fund and has contributed about $2 billion overall to date, according to the state Gaming Control Board.

The Senate in June passed a bill that, in part, would combine the state's two racing commissions and shift the cost of drug testing horses to the industry. Those cost-cutting measures would cover the fund shortfall, state officials said.

The House has yet to pass a similar measure.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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