Sport of Kings Needs Peasants Playing Slots

Horse Race Slot Machine Circa 1937 (Not What’s Coming Now)

The Sport of Kings apparently cannot survive today unless between races the peasants are pumping their copper into slots.

“The new law acknowledges what several other horse racing states already have concluded: that the new economic realities to sustain a viable horse racing industry require an alternative form of gaming to offset the high cost of live racing,” writes industry advocate Jeb Hannum in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The column hit print two days after a Virginia Racing Commission (VRC) public hearing on implementing the proposal approved by the 2018 General Assembly to allow up to 3,000 “historical horse racing” machines.  No machine was on display during the meeting, and the commission apparently wants to see one before making some decisions. 

“I want to see one of those machines sitting right down here. I want someone to explain exactly how that machine works. And why it’s not a slot machine,” said Commissioner I. Clinton Miller. “I want to be able to look people in the face and say ‘This is different. This is not Charles Town. This is not Las Vegas.’”

Looks like a slot machine to me.

Taxable Wager Data from VRC Annual Report

All of this is rehash but Bacon’s Rebellion adds value. Pari-mutuel gambling has been legal in Virginia less than 25 years, making it slightly younger than the far larger and more ubiquitous state lottery. According to the VRC annual report, total wagering (the licensed kind) since 1996 is slightly under $3 billion, far less than the $37 billion taken in by the state lottery.

The placement of Colonial Downs in New Kent, instead of far more populous Northern Virginia or vacation destination Hampton Roads, ranks as the one of the dumbest economic development decision of the age. Revenue was anemic and declined rapidly after the recession of 2008.

Colonial Downs closed the track and eight off-track betting facilities in 2014, and only limited racing has taken place at other locations, detailed in the report.   Virginia Equine Alliance, Hannum’s group, has since opened three satellite wagering facilities of its own with three more planned.

Those spread the revenue to localities. Before its collapse Colonial Downs was sharing revenue with nine localities, peaking at about $1.4 million in 2006 and 2007. Last year six localities received almost $400,000 in revenue, most of it for New Kent. The localities attending the hearing Tuesday clearly want plenty of local machines.

But technology is changing. Starting in 2004 “advance deposit wagering” by internet or telephone was allowed and almost $800 million in bets were placed that way through 2017, the largest source of revenue since the track closed. Four different websites are linked to the VEA website, with this as a fair example. With the Virginia Lottery happily taking bets via subscriptions online, that will be next for horse-race gambling.

Two more interesting links for background: the key roll calls in the House of Delegates and State Senate on House Bill 1609, which authorized the expansion into machine gambling. They too were placing a bet that Virginia’s voters are less antagonistic to gaming by machine than in the past.

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4 responses to “Sport of Kings Needs Peasants Playing Slots

  1. Great headline!

    I’m ambivalent about gambling. First of all, I never gamble myself. I’ve been to Vegas two times and on several cruise ships and I’ve never spent a dime on gambling. I’ve purchased two $1 lottery tickets in my life. I guess it’s my Scottish ancestry, but I have major objections to throwing my money away.

    But that’s me. If other people view gambling as a form of entertainment, well, that’s their call.

    That’s fine for most people. But the problem of gambling addiction is a real one. Gambling does ruin peoples’ lives. It does creates a social problem, some costs of which are borne by society.

    But, then, alcohol also causes social problems, and we don’t ban alcohol. Marijuana also causes social problems, and we’re peeling back the prohibition on that.

    As the old saying goes, I’m often wrong but never in doubt. Except when it comes to legalized gambling.

  2. I wish they’d just admit that they are a form of slot machine. They are kidding nobody. Several states have done this and others are looking at doing it. Its about the gaming industry – the horse breeders are cover, taking their cut.

  3. I don’t have a problem with it though I don’t gamble either. People spend their money on all manner of things for “enjoyment”and who is to say a week in Myrtle Beach is “better” than playing the horses or blackjack?

    But here’s a win-win. Let Native Americans run these things and mandate than any profits go ONLY to Native Americans health care and College education etc… AND/OR the money goes ONLY to schools that have high numbers of at-risk kids… free/reduced lunch and crappy SOLs or perhaps to the MedicAid Expansion… OR to the coal ash cleanup… no shortage of SPECIFIC things it could go for – but not just “education”…

  4. Since none of the Puritans and prudes on this blog actually gamble let me provide a gambler’s perspective. Forty years ago I lost $10 on a horse bet. Since then I’ve probably spent $150,000 trying to win it back. So what? My money, my business.

    Jim Bacon says gambling ruins some people’s lives. True. Pancakes ruin some people’s lives too (especially when combined with syrup in a devastating caloric cocktail of consumption). Let’s ban pancakes with felony level penalties for those scofflaws found to be possessing both pancakes and syrup.

    I went to Colonial Downs a couple of times when it was operating. Putting it in the middle of nowhere was insanity. Convenient to nowhere and nobody. Beyond that, horse betting was on the precipice of dramatic change as Colonial Downs was opening. On track betting has been hurt by the internet while off-track betting has been killed by the internet. The same General Assembly that considers poker an illegal game of chance (vs skill) has no issue with online horse gambling. However, slot machines need to be banned. But the lottery is not only allowed but encouraged. When you elect idiots you get idiocy. We largely have elected idiots and we have gotten what we should have expected to get – shuttered horse tracks in the middle of nowhere while Maryland operates its latest hugely successful casino as close as humanly possible to Virginia’s biggest population center. Virginians pour across the Woodrow Wilson bridge to gamble in Maryland. Our half-witted General Assembly has neither succeeded in prohibiting Virginians from gambling nor have they reaped any of the tax benefits from Virginians gambling in Maryland. Incompetence at that level is only attainable through aggressive gerrymandering.

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