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Senate approves horse racing bill despite sponsor’s objections

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The Senate passed a bill Wednesday regulating horse racing simulcasts over pleas from the original sponsor to kill it.

Rep. Mark Finchem gave up his public lands management bill for a strike-everything amendment that would let one racetrack, Rillito Park Racetrack in Tucson, show simulcast races on more days than currently allowed, provided the horsemen’s organization agrees. But after the Senate approved a floor amendment that would require the Arizona Racing Commission to  approve simulcast agreements, the Oro Valley Republican texted Sen. J.D. Mesnard “Kill it there, please.”

Wednesday’s 18-11 Senate vote was the Legislature’s latest foray into an ongoing feud between the state’s three horse racing tracks: Rillito, Prescott Valley’s Arizona Downs and Phoenix’s Turf Paradise. The simulcast company that operates in the southwest provides signals for Turf Paradise at both its track and offsite betting facilities, but it doesn’t provide off-track betting simulcasts for the other two tracks’ networks.

To that end, Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, sponsored a floor amendment that would require simulcasts to be offered to each track and betting facility under the same terms. He described the amendment as prohibiting “anti-competitive or deceptive” practices.

That’s not an issue for the Legislature, Mesnard said on the floor.

“Any deceptive practices are not OK, but I think we’ve got to be careful because this amendment is injecting us into the contractual agreement between private entities,” Mesnard said. “What this boils down to for me is the state telling an entity that has an agreement, has a contract, you have to serve all or none.”

Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, agreed. He noted the horse tracks have been participating in meetings with the racing commission, and said they should work issues out among themselves and come back to the Legislature next year if needed.

“It’s too big of a stick for us to come down and do this on a bill,” he said.

Mesnard and Livingston votes against the bill.

During testimony on the bill in front of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee earlier this year, a lobbyist for Turf Paradise said they wanted to proceed with meetings.

But Arizona Downs co-owner Tom Auther said the meetings were going nowhere because Turf Paradise benefited from the status quo.

“If we go to the legislature, they say we’ve got a stakeholders meeting, work it out there,” he said. “If we go to the commission, they say ‘You’ve got a bill in the legislature, work it out there.”

Kelsey Lundy, a lobbyist who represents Turf Paradise, said the meetings did not result in an agreement because Arizona Downs did not negotiate.

Auther urged lawmakers to consider adding something like Borrelli’s amendment to the bill. So did Leroy Gessmann, president of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

The two other companies that provide simulcasts — NYRA, which handles New York tracks, and TwinSpires, which shows races in the Midwest — both provide signals to all three Arizona tracks, Gessman said.

Borrelli said the state already regulates horse racing and has anti-trust legislation, and he didn’t see any issue with addressing a monopoly through his amendment.

“Horse racing is already highly regulated,” Borrelli said. “There is a commission. This just gives the commission control of making sure everyone is playing fairly.”

And although the bill’s original sponsor, Finchem, texted Mesnard to ask that the bill be killed and sent Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, a text saying he planned to ask to retain the bill when it returned to the House, Borrelli said he was confident Finchem would come around because of new information that came to light since Tuesday night. Borrelli had not responded to inquiries about what that new information by our deadline.

Correction: The original version of this story erroneously reported Turf Paradise is the only track that receives simulcast signals from the simulcast company that operates in the Southwest. The simulcast signal is available at all three tracks, but the company doesn’t provide off-track betting simulcasts to two tracks’ networks. The corrected version also includes a statement from Turf Paradise’s lobbyist. 

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