Meetings & Information


Friday, December 19, 2014

Racinos were never about 'Saving Racing'

EASTERN PASSAGE: The big gamble

Russell Wangersky
Published on December 18, 2014
Red Shores, Charlottetown. File
Not fast: there are no track lights on. You can hear the rhythmic clop of the hooves out there, the harness making soft, rhythmic sounds — the horses occasionally chuckle.

The stables are quiet, with empty sulkies leaning against the wall, their long arms straight up like they’ve surrendered. Seven at night, full dark, an unseasonably warm November wind. It’s outside that strange concept, the racino. Racinos are supposed to help the failing harness business, the peculiar premise being that it’s OK to introduce casino gambling to a sport where there’s already racetrack gambling, like the two are bound to be complementary.

But here, no one but me is watching the horses. You can hear the jockeys talking as the two horses round the track, their voices moving as the horses travel, the horses and sulkies side by side, one man, one woman.

They talk to me when they pass, me only a standing shadow on the rail.

“How are you doin’?” the man calls.

“Hello,” the woman jockey says. The horses look over, their heads held straight but their big eyes cutting over as they pass through the light from the parking lot. The parking lot, with only a smatter of cars, so quiet that you can hear when a man spits in the distance. There’s a sliver of moon, so that you can see the rest of the lunar circle up there, lit only faintly.

Red Shores is a small casino — three blackjack tables, maybe five for poker. One blackjack table’s being used, and one poker table. Everyone knows everyone: one player is going back to work in Alberta at 2:30 a.m. — he’s gambling until he has to pack, unconcerned about the flow of money.

Dealers and staff keep coming over to ask him when he’s going back. That’s the first strange thing: it’s a first-name basis for everyone but me. There are three local doctors playing at the poker table — probably the best place on P.E.I. to choke on a french fry or have a heart attack. Better chances than the slots, anyway.

Maybe it’s different in summer, busier.

Right now, it’s everything that can be wrong with a casino.

Any government that wants to be in the casino business had better be thinking about just who’s going to play — and how to get people from outside their province to surrender cash. Casinos have been pitched in Newfoundland. Others operate in Halifax and Sydney, N.S., and in a highway-side bunker-like room near Moncton, N.B. There’s apparently a First Nations casino in Woodstock, N.B. — I’ve never seen that one. The rest seem to share the same patrons, the exact same sad, long-distance eyes.

The last time one was proposed in Newfoundland, bureaucrats were blunt in their review of the plan.
“…(It) is questionable whether any material fiscal or economic gains could be achieved, or whether they are worth any social policy trade-offs. Citing past practices in other jurisdictions where casinos have been established, the proponent concedes that a casino would attract few additional tourists to the province and that the majority of its patrons would be residents. … As gaming is largely a discretionary spending item, revenues generated by a casino may be offset by a reduction in Atlantic Lottery Commission revenues or from other expenditures.”

Has tithing the Charlottetown regulars saved the racetrack? Maybe. But only by recycling local dollars that would be spent anyway, the government happily taking its cut while arguing that casino gambling is just an innocent bit of fun, not an inescapable tax on the eternally hopeful.

The horses vanish into the dark again. One makes a typical sound with its lips, a wet and rubbery burble. Not a whicker, more derisive than that, almost dismissive.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic Regional columnist. He can be reached at Hhis column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays andSaturdays on this website.


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