Hands off Race Horse Development Fund, PA. racing folks say
From left, Pennsylvania representatives Sue Helm, Mindy Fee and Tom Mahaffie pose with 2004 dual Classic winner Smarty Jones during Sunday’s industry rally at Equistar Farm in Annville, Pa. Photo by Tom De Martini.
Pennsylvania horsemen and breeders, still stinging from Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed diversion of $204 million from the state’s Race Horse Development Trust Fund, turned a scheduled stallion show Sunday into an industry unity rally.
More than 500 people, including several Republican state legislators, flocked to Equistar Farms in Annville, Lebanon County, just seven miles from Penn National Race Course, to protest Wolf’s threat to their livelihoods and its approximate $1.6 billion statewide economic impact.
Wolf’s proposal, made public during Tuesday’s state budget address, would shift earmarked horse racing funds generated by casino slot machine gambling to create a college scholarship program for students of low-and-moderate income families intending to enroll at a state-owned university.
“Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling race horse owners and ensure the viability of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education,” Wolf told lawmakers during Tuesday’s budget address.
“How many rich racehorse owners do we have here? Raise your hands. How many Arab sheiks do we have here? None. But how many of you have chipped ice out of a water bucket in the winter? Now we have some hands up,” said Brian Sanfratello, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders. “We’re not only a melting pot, we’re 20,000 Pennsylvania voters and we have family and friends that vote. This isn’t about rich owners. This is about the survival of Mom and Pop businesses throughout the state.”
Pete Peterson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, noted that Wolf signed legislation in 2017 changing the Race Horse Development Fund into a trust fund with explicit language forbidding its use for other purposes.
“Now he comes back three years later with this. It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Peterson said. “It’s a long-term investment; that’s why we got the trust fund language. Mares bred in the state have increased. We had record Standardbred sales at Harrisburg last year. The economic impact is huge.”
State Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin County), told attendees that they’ve done their part and as far as he’s concerned, the 2017 deal made with Wolf is a done deal.
“We’re going to work hard in the Legislature to ensure no one is going to touch your trust fund,” Mehaffie said.
State Rep. Sue Helm (R-Dauphin/Lebanon) said that the next legislative step is markups and that House Republicans won’t stand for a trust fund raid.
“It’s not lawful under the current language and we’re going to challenge the governor on that premise,” Helm said. “We understand how important it is not to destroy horse racing in the state.”
The state’s thoroughbred and standardbred racetrack operators have been publicly silent on the matter, but both Sanfratello and Peterson say ongoing and positive conversations are happening behind the scenes.
Repercussions of the industry’s loss of funding and possible demise aren’t lost on those who are in danger of seeing their businesses dissolve if the trust fund is distributed elsewhere.
Michelle Jeffries of Lebanon owns Red Barn Equine Outfitters, a feed, tack and supply store with on-track locations at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Parx Racing in Bensalem, and Presque Isle Downs in Erie. Jeffries is now weighing her options and making contingency plans.
“We’re looking to move into a space at Charles Town right now. That makes me a little less nervous. We’d be out of business in Pennsylvania and three employees would lose their jobs,” Jeffries said. “I’d like to keep my farm here in Lebanon with my retired race horses.”
Penn National-based jockey Julio Hernandez, with his wife Priscilla by his side and a young son in his arms, was also succinct.
“I seriously don’t know how to do anything else,” Hernandez said. “I came here from Puerto Rico in 2013 to go to high school and jockey school. I have a wife and three kids and people in Puerto Rico. It’s not going to be easy.”
Sanfratello urged attendees to contact their local legislators and inform them of their personal stories when voicing their disdain for Wolf’s proposal.
The state’s final budget is due to legislators for a vote by June 30.
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