Valley View Downs racetrack and casino project in Lawrence County loses support of horsemen

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Valley View Downs, the would-be racetrack and casino in Lawrence County, may have the ongoing support of the state's horse racing officials, but the horsemen themselves are no longer along for the ride.

The Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen's Association sent a letter to the state Harness Racing Commission this month upon learning that the commission had granted yet another extension to the Valley View Downs ownership group, giving Philadelphia-based Endeka Entertainment more time to line up the money to build the casino.

"We have now withdrawn from the project, [and] no longer support a purse agreement with Endeka or their predecessors or successors," said Samuel A. Beegle, president of the PHHA, in a March 15 letter to the harness commission.

Horsemen have been grumbling for years about the negligible progress at Valley View Downs, and the tens of millions in potential purse dollars that drivers and trainers have lost because of the delays. But this is the first time their frustration has been put in writing.

The horsemen are a key, but often overlooked, part of the gaming equation: One of the purported reasons for legalizing slots gambling back in 2004 was providing a financial bailout to the Keystone State racing industry.

A percentage of slots revenue goes to increased purses for races, and those purses filter down to the horse breeders, trainers, owners and drivers. That cut, called the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund, comes out of every casino's gaming revenues, but winner's purses can't be awarded if there are no races taking place.

And Valley View Downs -- which says it is negotiating with racetrack giant Penn National Gaming to swap an ownership and operating stake in the racetrack for financing -- is materially no closer to holding races today than it was a decade ago when the racetrack was first proposed.

"The PHHA has been patient and reasonable throughout this process," said the letter from Mr. Beegle. "However, we no longer have any confidence that this project will be completed."

Racetracks can't just invite a bunch of horses and drivers to the track and hope for a racing schedule to materialize -- they need operating agreements with harness or thoroughbred groups.

In Pennsylvania, there are two such harness groups, the PHHA and the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association. Without the support of, and a contract with, at least one of them, there can be no live harness racing at Valley View Downs.

Valley View had a handshake agreement with the PHHA to be its racing partner. Barring a change of heart, that deal appears in jeopardy, based on the language of the letter.

Endeka's harness racing license, issued last year, was conditional upon "a Live Racing Agreement with a recognized horsemen's group presently operating in the harness racing industry within the Commonwealth," among other conditional factors.

The "presently operating" clause means Valley View Downs can't launch its own horsemen's organization.

It is unclear whether the Meadows Standardbred group would consider partnering with Valley View, should the operation get its financial house in order. Its executive director, Kim Hankins, said Thursday that "the [MSOA] board is considering the situation."

Mr. Beegle, contacted Wednesday, said he had no comment on the matter beyond what was in the letter.

James A. Doherty III, Endeka's attorney, said, "At this time Endeka Entertainment L.P. is moving forward with its plan to build a first-class racing and gaming facility in Lawrence County and will continue to work with the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to satisfy their requirements for licensing."

Earlier this month, the state harness commission gave Valley View's developers a 78-day extension, through Sunday, to put together at least $170 million in financing to build the racetrack and casino.

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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