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Horse owners hope fund not raided

| Thursday, June 7, 2012, 8:53 p.m.
Jennifer Hercules of Claysville in Washington County grooms her pacer horse Keystone Radiance on Thursday in one of the new stables at The Meadows in North Strabane. Five new stables have been completed on the 70-acre backside. Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Horse owners say they are cautiously optimistic that Gov. Tom Corbett is backing away from a proposal to raid a racehorse development fund fueled by gambling revenues.

The move would be welcomed by Rich Gillock, 55, of Belle Vernon. He said the fund helps raise more lucrative race purses in Pennsylvania, which have allowed him to double his horse breeding and racing business to include 50 equines and 14 workers.

"(Gambling) has really increased the amount of people who have invested in horses in Pennsylvania and created so many jobs," Gillock said on Thursday. "It has provided work and health insurance for people in this area."

Gillock joined other owners, racers, politicians and gambling regulators yesterday at the The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in North Strabane to dedicate five barns that contain 275 horse stalls and cost $6.25 million to build. The barns replace 10 dilapidated ones built in 1963.

Cannery Casino Resorts of Las Vegas, The Meadows' parent company, paid for the barns to comply with the state's 2004 gambling law, which requires so-called "racinos" to improve horse-racing facilities over a 10-year period.

Each barn is equipped with seven ventilation fans to reduce dust and heat; wide concrete aisles; windows; security doors; plentiful florescent lighting; rubberized stall mats; and fire-sprinkler systems.

"There's a constant flow of air through here so the dust and the dirt don't affect the horses," said Kim Hankins, executive director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association.

Tom Leasure, the association's race secretary, said many considered the high-end sprinkler system as a necessity because of a catastrophic barn fire in July 2001. The fire killed 28 horses and caused $2.8 million in damage.

"The new barns will help keep horses healthier," Gillock said.

There are six racinos in Pennsylvania. The next closest to Pittsburgh is Presque Isle Downs in Erie County. Combined, they have invested $38 million to improve stables and racetracks, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

Twelve percent of slot-machine revenues -- money that gamblers lose -- goes to the horse-racing industry. Those losses generated more than $228 million last year to augment horse-racing purses, support horse-breeding operations and shore up health and pension benefits for horsemen.

Total wagering -- known as the "live handle" in the industry -- was down about 10 percent from 2010-11, ending a four-year increase. Gamblers wagered slightly less than $700 million last year.

Pennsylvania's Race Horse Development Fund grew to $276.9 million last year -- more than double the $124.7 million it contained in 2007, the year after casinos began opening.

Corbett proposed taking about $72 million a year from the fund to balance the 2012-13 budget, but lawmakers and the industry say the figure likely would be closer to $3 million to $5 million.

Horse-racing groups vehemently opposed the idea, saying it would renege on the promise to help the declining harness-racing industry that legislators made when they legalized gambling.

"It would have been devastating," said state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg. "There would have been job losses running into the thousands."

Lawmakers are trying to approve the budget before June 30.

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