Horse Racing in Georgia: The Starting Gate Remains Closed
photography by AMBER CHALFIN, DOWN THE STRETCH PHOTOS
The mane on my neck, nearly all the way down to my withers, stands at attention the first Saturday in May when more than a score of 3-year-olds are loaded into the starting gate at Churchill Downs in Louisville. As they begin a five-week odyssey hoping to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed pulled off the miraculous feat in 1978, I paw at the ground in anticipation. As a Georgia resident, however, most times the pawing is from frustration.
Because I live here, the thrill of victory — that is, of picking the winner in one of the three Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup or 40,000-plus other races held around the country each year — and cashing a winning ticket is only possible if I travel elsewhere. Yes, I can go to Kentucky or Florida, or a dog track in Alabama to place a wager, or I can engage in illegal offshore wagering or call a local bookie, but I can’t wager legally online from the comfort of home nor at a local track or off-track wagering parlor. As a result, a portion of the revenues that Georgia misses out upon, winds up in the saddlebags of other, perhaps more progressive states. It’s not a big deal to some people, but having the ability to wager on races like the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness or the Belmont Stakes was a part of my silks for years.
A TIME FOR REFLECTION
A day at the races can be financially rewarding, or draining, or simply a splendid form of entertainment. A thoroughbred racehorse is a magnificent looking species and the setting of some of the tracks where they compete is pastoral, with a county fair feeling rather than that of a stadium. Seasoned handicappers often start their day with a pre-daylight trip to the track for morning workouts to see horses training for future races.
A bagel in hand, a cup of coffee in the other and perhaps a Daily Racing Form (DRF) tucked inside an armpit, these purists may not be looking for future tips on particular horses, as much as they are simply watching the horses run, listening to the rhythm of their hooves pounding the dirt or turf and their excitedly notice able exhales during their morning gallops.
Sitting on a bench near the finish line, discussions range from the previous night’s dinner, marveling at a recently witnessed performance or perhaps a little shared knowledge about a horse or an upcoming race. Some pour over the seemingly endless statistics in the DRF or one of the many other available data sources. This is a time for reflection, conversation and studying, as today’s upcoming races are six or more hours later.
As I outweighed most jockeys by the time I crossed the third-grade finish line, had no aptitude for training animals and my bankroll has always been more suited to owning a carrier pigeon than a thoroughbred, my lone involvement in the racing industry has been limited to covering races for SportsUnlimited Magazine, and spectating or wagering, though not necessarily in that order.
The fact that pari-mutuel betting has been banned by a Georgia constitution amendment since 1992, when former Gov. Zell Miller used the governing law as a bar- gaining chip to get the Georgia Lottery bill passed, doesn’t sit well with me, or others who have enjoyed the pursuit elsewhere in the States. Despite Miller’s comment some six years prior to the change in law that “a lottery would undermine morals more than pari-mutuel wagering,” the lottery bill was passed, and Miller eventually got the proceeds he sought for lottery revenues to bolster the state’s education system. Pari-mutuel wagering is banned only in Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Georgia, but none of the other states has the combination of population base, weather, location nor the infrastructure that Georgia offers.
REMEMBERING A SIMPLER ERA
Greg Barckhoff, owner of SportsFan Properties of Roswell and formerly of the Atlanta Sports Council, the Georgia Dome and SportsUnlimited Magazine, has traveled to seven states that operate live horse racing and simulcast wagering. His favorite tracks are Keeneland in Lexington, Saratoga Race Course in upstate N.Y., and Santa Anita, near Pasadena, Calif. The allure of horse racing for him is the sport more than it is the wagering, and he once even purchased an investment interest in a horse.
“For me, horse racing is about the pageantry, the setting, the history of the sport in the U.S. and the competition. Seeing the best horses, the best jockeys and the best trainers trying to accomplish the same goals is a draw for me. Even though there is new technology involved in today’s racing with wagering machines, the Tote board and live videos of the races, horse racing, to me, is a throwback to a simpler era,” Barckhoff said.
And while some sharps (bettors) head to the track to make a killing, Barckhoff appreciates the fact that everybody has a chance to win, no matter their budget. “Even a $2 bet, and the chance of hitting exotic wagers like exactas and trifectas keep it interesting and entertaining for me. I would describe myself as a budget gambler, so that I know I’ll have enough money left to be at the track until the last race. I am not a typical handicapper, though; I actually handicap the handicappers,” he offered. “Everyone has their own method of picking horses, and mine is to try to determine the horses that may have been overlooked by others and that still offer a good wagering value.”
Barckhoff believes it’s only a matter of time when the Georgia legislature finally allows horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering to be put up for a public vote. “Many of our citizens have moved here from states that have horse racing, and many who have lived here their whole lives have traveled elsewhere to enjoy the sport. I think it’s not a matter of if, but when. Let’s face it, fan duels, fantasy sports, filling out your bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament and even buying squares for the Super Bowl are all forms of gambling,” he said.
“They have become very popular and people enjoy the interaction with their friends, neighbors, co-workers and customers. They want a part of it. Horse racing can be financially feasible in Georgia if the laws are drawn the right way — the clean way. The state of Georgia can check off a lot of boxes in terms of revenue generation, tax dollars, supporting our state’s owners and breeders by passing this legislation and bringing the sport here,” said Barck- hoff, who volunteered his time to the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition (GHRC) in its battle to promote the industry and the pending legislation that was defeated in March.
A STATELY WAGER
Suwanee residents Patti and Dean Reeves own 10 horses, including 2013 Breeders’ Cup champion Mucho Macho Man, now retired and standing stud at Adena Springs in Kentucky. They help lead the GHRC’s fight, alongside Woodstock’s Steven Crayne, founder of Starting Gate Marketing LLC and executive director of the GHRC, who said the legislative fight for pari-mutuel wagering in Georgia is like a steeple- chase course.
“Opposition to this legislation only needs one-third of the vote to defeat it,” Crayne said. “Any legislation must have two-thirds of the vote for it to be introduced. We were just two votes short in the Senate, and there were 10 outstanding undecided votes. Sometimes, you get the impression that some are more focused upon keeping their legislative jobs than they are about creating thousands of jobs and increasing revenues for the state.”
There are active lobbying groups opposed to expanding legalized gambling in the state, although other games of chance are widely promoted and legal, like the endless Georgia lottery games and Keno, which now can be played online with an advanced deposit wagering account. The Georgia Baptist Convention is one of those groups that oppose pari-mutuel wagering and casino gambling. “We stand firm in our resolve that gambling is an immoral effort that creates deliberate risks not inherent in or necessary to the functioning society; and whereas gambling appeals to greed and covetousness and gamblers win at the direct economic loss of others, gambling is contrary to honest work and responsible stewardship, and gambling is highly addictive…”
This “Resolution on Gambling” was submitted by Brad Walters, messenger from First Baptist Church, Hazelhurst, which was approved by the Georgia Baptist Convention Annual Meeting, November 2014, and has been displayed under the tab 2014 GBC Resolutions at gabaptist.org/publicaffairs.
Supporting scripture passages also are included in the resolution and provides pause for some of us who wrestle with pursuits that may, or may not be pleasing to God. However, as we have seen too many times recently, the separation of church and state has never been more apparent in our lifetime, and legislating ideals of moral conduct haven’t been very successful. In my opinion, if the state has already signed off on the mindlessness of participating in “get-rich-quick” lottery games, Keno and so on, then why would it prohibit skillful pari-mutuel gambling, where the majority of the money attained will come from the morally bereft outside of our state’s borders through wagering on simulcast races in the 43 states that allow it?
Equine Commerce, so coined by Dean Reeves in November 2012 during testimony before the Senate Study Committee on Horse Racing chaired by Sen. Jack Murphy, is a collective term that includes horse ownership, breeding, transporting, farming (hay and oats, for example), employment, pari-mutuel wagering, tax revenues and tourism. While it is difficult to determine exact figures of revenue generation associated with pari-mutuel wagering and horse racing, locals will have the final say as to whether or not they want one or both in their communities. In addition, the GHRC is not advocating for casino gambling, only pari-mutuel wagering opportunities.
“When we show legislators our business plan, most say that it’s a no-brainer. There are no public funds required to enact it. Both job creation and needed tax revenues for HOPE scholarship funding are results,” Crayne offered. “Thoroughbred racing is a great sport and Georgia is a great destination for it.”
WISDOM, JUSTICE, MODERATION
As previously determined, I have visited 30 racing venues in the past, with and without my wife and children, and never felt that a day at the races was anything but great entertainment and a wonderful way to spend the day. Compulsive behavior of any kind, whether it is gambling to excess, drinking to excess, or other actions might be considered poor stewardship of time and money.
For some, that behavior is a violation of a moral code. In the summer of 2009, I made the conscious decision not to engage in pari-mutuel wagering, playing the lottery and placing bets on sporting events. But that decision was based upon a variety of factors and I don’t look askance or judge those friends of mine who still engage in those activities. Matthew 7:1-2 clearly admonishes those who stand in judgment of others, and I will stand on that premise to say, legalizing pari-mutuel wagering and horse racing in the state has many more benefits than it does detriments.Our state motto is: Wisdom, Justice, Moderation, and if the day comes that horse racing is legal, you’ll find me near the finish line some mornings, just before daylight with my cup of coffee and a racing form. Let’s talk about that beautiful chestnut filly that’s running in the Georgia Oaks in a few days, and maybe the Breeders’ Cup in a few months time.
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