Following a recent discussion, one Michigan lawmaker is more hopeful about legalizing historical horse racing machines.
Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. told PlayMichigan that he left a May meeting between lawmakers, representatives of the administration, commercial casinos, tribal casinos and racetracks feeling that a compromise to save the state’s horse racing industry is possible.
“I believe strongly that there is room to get it done,” Hertel said. “While I think this is our last chance, I also think it is our best chance. We’ll see what happens.”
Sen. Dan Lauwers, sponsor of S396, previously told PlayMichigan that it was do-or-die territory to pass historical horse racing (HHR). If this attempt fails like the past two years’ tries have, the state could lose its remaining racetracks.
But Hertel’s involvement is a good sign for their survival.
Hertel knows how to pass difficult gaming bills
Hertel took the legislative lead in negotiating the state’s online casino and sports betting bills in 2019.
With Michigan now having successful statewide online casino, poker and sports betting, people might not remember that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had major concerns with the bills most of the year.
Then Hertel, whose lawmaker father once employed a young Whitmer, helped facilitate an agreement.
“I think actually there are less issues right now with this bill than there were when we began negotiations of the online gaming package,” Hertel said.
Why Gretchen Whitmer has stood in way of HHR
Two bills to revive Michigan’s struggling horse racing industry originally were part of the 2019 package. One authorized advance deposit wagering (ADW), and the other looked at historical horse racing.
The HHR bill was pulled at the request of the administration. Whitmer wasn’t going to sign it.
“The governor has fair concerns about how it affects compacts and other things,” Hertel said. “The governor, as far as I know, doesn’t have a problem with the horse racing industry. It’s just a matter of figuring out the details.”
Hertel said the major issue with HHR is refraining from breaching gaming compacts with Michigan’s Native American tribes.
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 Michigan historical horse racing bill went into effect.
Hertel hopes to avoid that situation by involving the tribes in the discussion.
“That bill was not a negotiated product, so I could understand why people had frustrations,” Hertel said. “We’re trying to bring everyone to the table and have those discussions right now.”
Path forward for Michigan historical horse racing
Michigan has one remaining active horse racetrack. Northville Downs near Detroit hosts standardbred harness racing.
AmRace & Sports LLC bought the shuttered Sports Creek Raceway in 2018 and pledged to bring thoroughbred racing back to Michigan. The catch? Only if the state legalized ADW and HHR.
Lauwers says the company will abandon the project if the state doesn’t move on HHR this year.
Michigan casinos currently can’t accept horse bets. To give them something in return for allowing HHR, Hertel sponsored S398, which would permit simulcast wagering at casinos. It’s tie-barred to S 396, meaning it can’t pass without the HHR bill.
“I think it’s something they want,” Hertel said. “I don’t know if it’s as important to them as other market concerns. There’s probably only three to four race days a year that really drive traffic to a casino. But I think it at least shows we’re willing to try to include them in this process as well.”
The package of horse racing bills advanced from the Senate Agriculture Committee in May. Hertel says the Senate would pass the bill as it stands, but lawmakers know it needs approval from the House and governor as well.
So lawmakers will continue working on a deal agreeable to all parties. The Michigan legislative session will go into January, so there’s plenty of time.
“It takes a lot of work, but I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a while,” Hertel said. “The industry has waited a long time and needs help now.”
Another boost could be coming for MI horse racing
Meanwhile, the horse industry could be getting another boost soon from Lansing lawmakers.
Last week, the Michigan House passed a pair of bills that would remove a $3 million cap on money the Agriculture Equine Industry Development Fund receives from internet gaming and online sports betting revenue. That fund supports programs to incentivize breeding and raising of horses in Michigan, including support for horse racing at county fairs.
HBs 4823 and 4824 were introduced, respectively, by Julie Alexander (R-Hanover) and Curtis Hertel’s brother, Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores). The bills have been moved to the Senate Agriculture Committee for consideration.
Currently, the money in excess of the $3 million cap from each form of gaming goes to the Internet Gaming Fund and Internet Sports Betting Fund, which flows to the school aid fund.
PlayMichigan’s Matt Schoch contributed to this report.