Sen. Dan Lauwers began fighting for historical horse racing to save the Michigan horse racing industry in 2019. This year, he says it’s now or never.
Lauwers believes either Michigan passes his historical horse racing bill soon, or a once billion-dollar industry will die.
“It’s kind of the final attempt here, if you will,” Lauwers said. “We’re down to one track, and the investors looking at Sports Creek Raceway made it clear they will pull out if they don’t get this. If we get this done, we’ll possibly have two tracks. If not, we’ll probably lose the one we have.”
Lauwers’ S 396 advanced from the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday, along with three related bills.
Michigan’s historical horse racing bill in perspective
In 2019, Michigan passed a package of gambling expansion bills that included sports betting and online casino. Two bills to revive Michigan’s struggling horse racing industry also were part of the package. One authorized advance deposit wagering (ADW), and the other historical horse racing (HHR).
The bills passed through the Senate as a group. However, as it faced opposition from commercial and tribal casinos, the HHR bill was pulled from the package.
Lauwers and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich tried again last year. Ananich’s district includes Sports Creek Raceway, which ceased operations in 2014. AmRace & Sports LLC bought Sports Creek in 2018 and pledged to bring thoroughbred racing back to Michigan.
The catch: The comeback would only be if the state authorized ADW and HHR.
Northville Downs near Detroit is the only remaining Michigan racetrack that hosts live racing and simulcast racing. It offers standardbred harness racing.
Although historical horse racing machines are a parimutuel game based on past racing results, they play a lot like slot machines. This draws the ire of casinos that exclusively offer slot machines. Fred Harrington, a tribal council member for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, told PlayMichigan last year that tribes would cease making gaming payments to the state if the HHR bill went into effect.
Detailing the 2021 HHR effort
This year, the HHR legislation is among a package of four bills:
- 396: Modifies the definition of parimutuel wagering to include wagers on races run in the past. Imposes a 1% tax on total wagers.
- 397: Allows tracks to offer video lottery terminals.
- 398: Permits commercial casinos to pursue a third-party facilitator license for simulcast horse wagering on casino property.
- 399: Provides criminal penalties related to 397.
The package centers on the HHR bill. The video lottery terminal bill essentially shows that racetracks could be asking for more, but are only asking for enough to survive in the state.
New this year is the offer for casinos to obtain licenses for simulcast wagering. It’s an attempt to give casinos something in return for dropping their opposition against HHR.
Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. introduced S 398, which is tie-barred to S 396. This means S 398 can’t pass without 396.
“We don’t want to have casinos offering simulcast if we don’t get what we’re after for horse tracks,” Lauwers said. “That might work against their survival.”
Lauwers said there hasn’t been any indication from casinos that they actually want simulcast wagering. They remain on the record as opposed to the HHR bill.
“The casinos always said no,” Lauwers said. “They’d rather see the horse tracks go out of business, is pretty much what it comes down to.”
Legislative support is there for Michigan historical horse racing
Lauwers said the votes have always been there to get HHR through the legislature. After all, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the HHR bill 376-38 in 2019 before it was pulled from consideration in the House.
But there was no point in pushing the bill through, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“I don’t think we’ll struggle to get it through the legislature,” Lauwers said. “We’ve had the support in the legislature every time we’ve done this. The opposition came from the administration.”
Lauwers is in the majority Republican party in the Michigan legislature. Whitmer is a Democrat. However, in Ananich and Hertel, he has the support of two key Democrat lawmakers for the effort. Hertel was instrumental in working with Whitmer to get her approval on the sports betting and online casino bills.
“In the minority leader and Hertel, I’m probably working with two of the best people in the Democratic Caucus,” Lauwers said. “I think that gives us a really good chance.”
Time to force governor into decision on HHR
Now that it’s advanced through committee, Lauwers indicated that there’s a meeting next week with all parties concerned. This group includes the casinos, racetracks and the administration.
Lauwers hopes for an agreement facilitating the passage and signing of the bill.
However, seeing this as the last chance to save horse racing in Michigan, Lauwers wants the legislature to put the HHR bill on Whitmer’s desk, whether an agreement is reached or not.
“I think there’s no reason not to,” Lauwers said. “If the governor determines she wants to say no to horse racing in Michigan, that’s her decision.”
Lauwers says the horse racing industry in Michigan is about more than racing and betting. In his district, there is a company that provides hay and straw to racetracks. His daughter is a large-animal veterinarian. A lot of jobs will be lost in Michigan if horse racing fails, he said.
“Horse racing used to be a billion-dollar business in Michigan,” Lauwers said. “It can have a future here. Why say no to a billion-dollar business in the state?”