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Slots at Racetracks May Revive Ohio Horseracing Parks

Ohio voters may have a chance to approve or reject expanded gambling this November. If the ballot initiative passes, it would amend the state constitution to allow slot machines at the state's horseracing tracks plus two locations in Cleveland. Proponents are marketing the idea as free college tuition. Critics say it's merely another plan by racetrack owners to increase profits.

Scioto Downs, just south of Columbus, has been home to harness racing for more than 45 years. But like a lot of other race courses, the track's hay days seem to have come and gone.

An older-model Cadillac carries the starting gate away from a line of sulkies while a sparse crowd in the otherwise empty grandstand watches horses race toward the homestretch.

Scioto Downs, nearby Beulah Park and five other Ohio racetracks may see something of a revival if voters approve the installation of up to 3,500 video slot machines at each site.

"The whole prospect reverts us back 35 years ago or 30 years ago when we were considered a major league track. At that time they used to call us 'Little Saratoga.'"

Charles Ruma, the president of Beulah Park says the amendment could restore the thoroughbred racetrack's glory days.

"Today we're paying about $50,000 a day for purses," Ruma says. In the future, if this gets passed, we'll be paying $200,000 a day. And all of a sudden the competition will get a lot better and we'll see a lot more high-quality animals showing up so you get a lot more wagering."

The racecourse owners would get a majority of the new profits. But under their Learn and Earn plan, 45% of the take would go to fund college tuition accounts for Ohio students. Dave Zanotti, director of the public policy group Ohio Roundtable, says he's opposed to the plan because, he says, it's un-constitutional.

You have 7 racetracks and two developers that are basically creating an amendment that will give them a monopoly on the casino business in Ohio," Zanotti says. "And for state and local purposes, a tax-free monopoly as well, something that no other state has."

But Learn and Earn spokeswoman Linda Siefkas says rejecting the amendment means a substantial amount of money will be lost to neighboring states.

"There will be an estimated $1 billion a year set aside in the scholarship program," Siefkas says. "That's how much gambling is going on in Ohio that is wagered in Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, soon to be Pennsylvania, and Windsor, Ontario. So we know we lose millions across our borders with people that are already gaming, and enjoying that with the slot machines. We want to recapture that in Ohio for social good in Ohio."

Beulah Park's Charles Ruma says he's seen how expanded gaming has turned other venues around. The once fading West Virginia racecourse known as Waterford Park is now called Mountaineer.

Mountaineer has 3,800 slot machines, an entertainment facility, a 6 story hotel, a spa, and they're planning a golf course," Ruma says. "And all of a sudden their purses are among the highest on the East Coast."

But the addition of slot machines at race tracks could siphon money away from other gaming such as the Ohio Lottery. Created by the legislature in 1974, the lottery's revenue funds about 5 percent of the budget for K-through-12 education. Mardele Cohen is the lottery's communications director.

"People only have so much discretionary money," Cohen says. "So it only makes sense the more opportunities that are out there, you know there's only so much money and one would imagine that we would take a hit."

Ohio Roundtable's Dave Zanotti is even more skeptical. He calls Learn and Earn's financial calculations "bogus" and "a scam." And he warns that expanded gambling would open the door to tribal casinos, hurting racetrack profits and derailing the Learn and Earn plan.