Horse owners angered by House plan to change slots law

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HARRISBURG -- For two years now, horse breeders, owners, trainers and jockeys have been counting on seven new racetrack/casinos to generate additional money to rejuvenate the state's horse-breeding and agricultural industries.

But some of that financial aid is being threatened by a surprise change that the state House wants to make to the 2004 slots law, equine industry officials said yesterday.

The Gaming Control Board has licensed five racetrack/casinos, and a sixth "racino'' license is earmarked for a new track being built in Erie. Three of the facilities have harness racing and three others have thoroughbred racing.

As things now stand, the seventh and final racetrack/slots license would go to a fourth harness track, yet to be built, in Western Pennsylvania.

But the House voted this week to make it easier to convert that last license into a license for a stand-alone, or non-track casino, which could be built anywhere in the state. Instead of waiting until July 2009 to convert the license, the House said the change could happen in July 2008.

Even though the Senate hasn't yet agreed with that change, Paul Spears, executive director of the Standardbred Breeders Association of Pennsylvania, is livid.

"The loss of the fourth harness track would be a mortal blow to our progress in promoting the state's harness racing," he said yesterday.

Joseph Canfora, an investor in a proposed Lawrence County harness track called Bedford Downs, also criticized the House action. He said one of the goals of the 2004 slots law was to generate new revenue to help the state's farming and horse breeding industries.

"It defeats the whole purpose of the slots law; it's mind-boggling," he said.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, said the state's goal is to have all its new casinos up and running as soon as possible. That will generate slots revenue to lower property taxes as well as help horse racing, he said.

Some state senators, such as Robert Mellow, D-Scranton, and Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, said they oppose the House's action and will work to undo it when the Senate meets Monday on slots amendments.


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