Ohio's First Racino Scheduled To Open Friday Despite Legal Challenge

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The first casino at an Ohio horse racing track is scheduled to open this Friday. The video slots at Columbus’ Scioto Downs will open to gamblers at 2 p.m., unless a court intervenes.

The backers of “racinos” hope such venues will revive profits -- especially now that traditional casinos are opening in four Ohio cities.

Patrons of Scioto Downs once had acres of parking at the track known for its harness racing. But casinos began operating in bordering states and the allure of horse racing faded. Over time, on race days, the number of cars at Scioto Downs dwindled. So this year the owners of Scioto Downs took a portion of the parking lot to build a $125 million dollar “racino.”

Troy Buswell is vice president and general manager at Scioto Downs. He expects this so-called “racino” to breathe new life into the Scioto Downs operation.

BUSWELL: "Yeah, I think the goal here is to enhance the experience at this property and Scioto Downs and obviously we feel that this new facility is going to do that for us."

Video Lottery Terminals, or VLTs, look and sound like slot machines, though you hear the sound of coins being dispensed because it’s all electronic.

Buswell says the Scioto Downs casino operates under the authority of the Ohio Lottery Commission, which was established by an amendment to the Ohio Constitution in 1973. Governor Kasich and the legislature are using that amendment -- according to an opponent of racinos -- to thwart the will of the people. Rob Walgate is vice president of the Ohio Roundtable.

WALGATE: "They went outside of their authority and created a mechanism where slot machines could be placed at racetracks under the auspice of the lottery commission. And the way the lottery was created in 1973, when you read the words of the Constitution, we feel that it’s clear in there that there wasn’t a place for a governor and a legislature to have the authority to place slot machines wherever they want, whenever they want."

Scioto Downs is the only race track that’s applied to the Ohio lottery commission for a VLT license. But it’s likely that others will apply too; especially to retain their customer base as the four, full-service casinos open in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo. All that the horse tracks are waiting on is resolution of a lawsuit brought by the Ohio Roundtable group that says racinos are illegal. Again the Roundtable’s Rob Walgate.

WALGATE: "The governor went behind closed doors with the gambling industry and cut a deal. They signed a memorandum of understanding. And part of that and part of legislation passed at the statehouse dealt with placing slot machines at the seven race tracks around the state. And it also talked in there about the ability of those race tracks to move to a market if they so choose ... that paths would be cleared."

It’s no secret that some horse racing tracks are making plans to move to what they expect are more lucrative areas of Ohio. They want to avoid a possible stampede of gamblers away from the tracks to the new, free-standing, mega-casinos. Raceway Park in Toledo might move to Dayton; Beulah Park in Grove City might relocate to the Youngstown area.

In Cleveland, the local racetrack, Thistledown, is operated by Rock Ohio Caesars, the same people who own the already operating Horseshoe Casino. Thistledown’s rumored move to the Akron area would reduce competition with Horseshoe Casino. That’s why Beulah Park might move out of Central Ohio. Its owner is Penn National Gaming which plans to open the Columbus Hollywood Casino later this fall.

The proliferation of gambling sites in Ohio worries Walgate who says Kasich or future leaders could expand gambling exponentially.

WALGATE: "Why won’t he expand in the future? There’s no guarantee that he won’t or the next administration won’t do the same and just expand it incrementally. Before we know it, it will be everywhere."

Attorney General Mike DeWine has filed a motion in Franklin County Common Pleas Court to dismiss the Roundtable’s lawsuit. But Walgate says their lawsuit that deals with the wording of the 1973 Ohio Lottery constitutional amendment is solid.

WALGATE: "We have a very solid case that will be laid out and presented and all of Ohio will get a chance to see the facts behind that amendment."

But Buswell at Scioto Downs believes their side will prevail.

BUSWELL: "I think we’re moving forward. Obviously we’ve put a lot of time and a lot of effort into this facility so we feel confident. And we are going to open our doors on June 1."

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