BOSTON (SHNS) – Though the pandemic has them on hold for at least another week, horse racing and simulcast wagering will be on solid legal footing to continue for more than a year under a bill that surfaced and got to the governor’s desk within less than five hours Monday.
Without action, or if Gov. Charlie Baker opts to not sign the bill by the end of Tuesday, horse racing and simulcast wagering would become illegal in Massachusetts on Wednesday.
The bill that passed both branches Monday (H 4817) would instead push the sunset for racing and simulcasting from this Wednesday to July 31, 2021, and it also includes language that would allow Suffolk Downs to hold onto its simulcasting license for the duration of the extension, despite the fact that the racetrack ran its final live horse race last June and has no plans to hold live races in the future.
The House Ways and Means Committee first surfaced the bill a little before noon and the Senate took the final vote needed to send it to the governor just after 4 p.m. Monday.
The simulcasting sunset has given lawmakers fits in recent years and the Legislature had missed two of the last three deadlines to extend the authorization for the sport of kings and simulcasting, causing the cancellation of races in 2018 and the loss of business at tracks.
Had an extension not been granted by July 1, the economic impact would have been less than in previous years. The live horse racing season — which is limited now to harness racing at Plainridge Park Casino — was put on hold due to the pandemic and has not yet begun in Massachusetts. The Plainville oval and the state’s other simulcast centers at Suffolk Downs and Raynham remain closed to the public until at least July 6.
But a lapse would have spelled a temporary end to advance deposit wagering, in which bets are placed over the phone or online from pre-funded accounts, which has been allowed to continue through the pandemic.
Over the years, lawmakers have extended the racing and simulcasting laws for about one year at a time, often waiting until just before or after the deadline to pass extensions. The last extension, which took effect in January and approved the activities until July 1, came while a group of lawmakers said they were working to draft a piece of legislation to restructure how the state regulates horse racing and simulcasting.
Sen. Paul Feeney said in January that he and Rep. Tackey Chan — the two co-chairs of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure — were working on a bill that would enable the Legislature to “stop this dance” of extending licenses every few months.
In January, Feeney said the bill would create a system for licensure and oversight of racing and simulcasting that makes sense in the current marketplace and for the future. He said at the time the bill was 80 percent done, but was “not ready for prime time.”
On Monday, Feeney said progress on the bill is on track and he hopes to put it before committee members soon to collect input. He said he also understands that it will take time and attention to move a comprehensive bill through the Legislature while also dealing with a pandemic, and backed the idea of one more extension.
“As we face a looming racing & simulcasting deadline this week, I believe we should extend the date to a time-certain while we consider the modernization bill that we hope to release soon. It’s vitally important that we do everything we can, in every sector of our economy, to keep workers working and businesses open as we deal with the sudden economic downturn,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we can agree to an approach that allows these businesses to continue to operate in the short-term while we consider a bill that will create stability in the long-term.”
Feeney said he was on board with the extension until July 31, 2021 “as long as everyone remains committed to advancing a bill that promotes long-term security for the industry, its workers, local farms and agricultural stakeholders.”
For years, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has been asking lawmakers to give serious consideration to giving it broader powers to regulate the racing industry and put an end to the one-year extensions.
The 2011 casino law steers a portion of new gaming revenue to a fund to assist the horse racing industry, but thoroughbred racing no longer exists in Massachusetts and the only track that still runs races is the harness racing track at Plainridge Park Casino.