Legislation Tries To Apply Pressure On Gov. Wolf To Resume Horse Racing

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State Rep. Barry Jozwiak has been among Pennsylvania Republicans approving legislation to reopen hair salons, car dealerships, and other industries shut down by COVID-19 concerns, only to see Gov. Tom Wolf veto the bills.

Now the House member from Berks County is leading the effort to reopen the state’s six racetracks with a bill endorsed by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission at its meeting Tuesday.

Even if the racing measure — should it pass — likely faces the same fate with the Democratic governor, Jozwiak sees merit to raising the issue through the legislative branch.

“This is one of the ways you put pressure on the governor to open up stuff,” Jozwiak told Penn Bets. “Hopefully he’ll realize this is something that can be done and that it’ll help the economy.”

Other states getting out of gate before PA

Like casinos and other forms of entertainment, the thoroughbred and harness tracks around Pennsylvania have been shut down since mid-March by the threat from the COVID-19 virus.

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Most other states also suspended racing, although it continued without spectators in a few states. Now some bordering states such as West Virginia recently allowed racing to resume, and others like New York announced dates when it can restart.

In Pennsylvania, there is nothing yet for the state’s horsemen and breeders to bank on. Racetracks are all located in counties falling into yellow and red categories of the state’s color-coded system guiding the resumption of business, with none in the green phase that would enable reopening.

The governor shot down a request early this month from the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission to enable tracks to reopen without spectators and with various safety protocols for those involved in racing.

“Pennsylvania must proceed with returning to work cautiously. … As part of this reopening effort, we foresee horse racing reopening when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (casinos, theaters, etc.),” he said in a letter May 12 to Russell Redding, who is both his secretary of agriculture and chairman of the racing commission.

The explanation both mystified and infuriated many in the racing industry who have seen other tracks operating fine elsewhere while their own livelihoods are threatened.

Racing commission believes time is right

A report presented to the racing commission Tuesday noted that hundreds of horses continue to be cared for in the backsides of three tracks — Parx, Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, and Meadows Racetrack & Casino — with no infections to any workers, due to all of the precautions taken.

Thomas Chuckas, director of thoroughbred racing for the commission, said numerous conversations have taken place with the track operators, who have drafted plans for how to resume operations smoothly and safely.

“Bottom line, a great deal of work has gone into this to make sure that when the governor gives the go-ahead, we are prepared to move forward,” Chuckas said.

That led the commissioners, in the monthly meeting held by phone call, to vote in support of Jozwiak’s legislation “to reopen racing as soon as possible to keep horse racing alive in Pennsylvania … keep our farms alive, keep agriculture alive, and also provide some tax money to the state,” in the words of commissioner Thomas Ellis.

House Bill 2544, introduced last Thursday with 21 co-sponsors signing on with Jozwiak, is a straightforward two-page measure.

It calls on the secretary of Community and Economic Development to issue an immediate waiver enabling horse racing to resume if the racing commission authorizes it and the racetracks demonstrate they are conforming to federal health guidelines related to COVID-19 and abiding by the state’s horse testing regulations.

The bill was approved in the House State Government Committee Tuesday in a vote largely along party lines and sent to the House floor.

Jozwiak knows colleagues have made their own similar attempts on behalf of the likes of barber shops and dog groomers without getting the governor’s consent for their industries to reopen, but he said it’s still worth trying on behalf of the affected horsemen.

“We’re trying to get his attention with this stuff,” the House member said. “Here it is two weeks [after the governor’s letter rejecting the return of horse racing]and things are much better, and maybe he’ll reconsider.”

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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