Pa. bill would transfer regulation of racetracks to agency

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HARRISBURG -- With the commissions that oversee Pennsylvania horse racing headed toward insolvency, a Beaver County senator has proposed transferring responsibility for the tracks to the Gaming Control Board.

Sen. Elder Vogel, R-New Sewickley, said his proposal to dissolve the state horse racing and harness racing commissions of the Department of Agriculture and place authority with the Gaming Control Board, which oversees casinos, is intended to help preserve the racing business in Pennsylvania.

"There hasn't been enough regulatory oversight of the racing industry in Pennsylvania in the last few years," he said, later adding: "We have to make sure it's fair and there's no cheating and the drug testing is done properly, as well as make sure there's money available in the future to continue racing."

With the growth of online and telephone wagering and demand for more drug testing, the industry has changed since lawmakers amended the state Race Horse Industry Reform Act in 1984, said Mike Rader, executive director of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, of which Mr. Vogel is chairman.

Wagers placed in person at the tracks -- the source of funding for regulation -- have declined, while costs have increased, he said, leaving the commissions expected to be bordering on insolvent in January.

The commissions require $17 million a year to operate but are projected to take in only $13 million to $14 million this year, said Samantha Krepps, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture.

Last week, the Appropriations Committee approved a bill, also from Mr. Vogel, that would transfer $5 million to the state racing fund so oversight can continue until more comprehensive changes are put in place.

In addition to changing regulators, Mr. Vogel's plan would recast the fines, fees and taxes that pay for regulatory oversight and drug testing, according to a memo to senators.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, have signed on as co-sponsors of the proposals.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said policymakers should seriously consider the plan.

"These two industries have been linked together, and it's logical they be under the jurisdiction of one oversight board," he said.

Pete Peterson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, which represents horse owners and breeders, said insolvency of the racing commissions is a major concern of his members.

"We believe this legislation is a good starting point for our ongoing discussions on how to address the long-term issues facing the commissions and preserve proper oversight of the industry," he said in an email. "We look forward to working with [policymakers] to address these issues in the coming months in a way that maintains the significant contributions our industry makes to Pennsylvania's economy."

On Friday, federal prosecutors announced fraud charges against three thoroughbred horse trainers and an employee of Penn National Race Course in Grantville, outside Harrisburg. Mr. Rader said that development will become part of the conversation about revising regulation of the tracks.

"It's concerning," he said. "I think everybody wants the sport in Pennsylvania to be run with the utmost integrity. Obviously today it seems as if there's a problem or an atmosphere that has led to at least this federal probe or indictment."

The charges against the trainers at Penn National involve an alleged scheme to defraud bettors by injecting horses with banned substances, according to the U.S. attorney's office. The racetrack employee, who worked as a clocker, allegedly provided false workout times to racing officials and to an outside provider of racehorse information.

Karen Langley:, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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