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Commentary: Voters are turned off by Props. 26 and 27. Racing tracks should pick a better horse next time

Horse racing

Horses come out of the starting gate on opening day at Del Mar in 2019. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

You'd never know it from the incessant TV ads, but troubled horse racing would greatly benefit from a sports betting initiative on the November ballot.

In fact, Proposition 26 is seen by some as a savior of thoroughbred racing in California.

It would allow sports betting on professional games — football, etc.— at tribal casinos and four horse racetracks: Santa Anita, Del Mar, Los Alamitos and Golden Gate.

The goal is to attract more bettors to the tracks, where attendance has slumped in recent years.

"We've had trouble introducing the sport to young people," says Gary Fenton, board chairman of Thoroughbred Owners of California. "Our demographic is old."

Sports betting, which is illegal in California except for horse racing, would also bring more gamblers into tribal casinos. And casino gambling would be upgraded by permitting roulette and craps. They're now forbidden in the state.

Bettors would need to be at least 21. Betting on high school or college games would still be illegal. There'd be a 10% state tax on sports-wagering profits at the tracks. The casinos have committed to paying the state 15%.

But private polling shows Proposition 26 running far behind and likely to lose along with another, vastly different sports betting initiative, Proposition 27.

Proposition 27 would legalize online sports betting. There'd be the same 10% tax and age restrictions as under 26.

A poll published last week by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 27 is supported by only 34% of likely voters and opposed by 54%. That means we can start writing its obit.

One big reason both measures are losing is that Proposition 26's main backers, tribes, fear the approval of online sports betting more than they desire in-person sports wagering in their casinos. Their top priority is the defeat of Proposition 27.

So, they haven't been promoting their own measure. No wonder it hasn't generated broad support. Virtually all their effort and money has gone into pummeling 27.

Tribes believe it's a threat to their casinos because easy online betting would be allowed at home on a smartphone or laptop. No need to drive miles to a casino to gamble.

And it's not just the online sports betting that tribes fear. It's what they think would come next: online poker, blackjack and slots — regular casino games that are much more profitable than sports betting.

Tribes currently have a monopoly on casino gambling in California. Voters gave it to them. They feel that's threatened by Proposition 27, sponsored mainly by out-of-state online interests, including FanDuel and DraftKings.

Another reason for Proposition 27's failure, I suspect, is its barrage of disingenuous TV ads. They imply that 27 is the solution to homelessness. That's because 85% of their tax would be earmarked for homelessness programs.

But that amount — up to $425 million a year, based on legislative analyst data — isn't much compared with what the state already is spending: $7.6 billion this fiscal year alone. Money's not the problem; it's the shortage of wise policy.

Proposition 27 ads also show some Native Californians supporting the measure, asserting it would greatly benefit tribes. But this is also disingenuous.

Although 15% of the tax — possibly up to $75 million — would go to a few tribes without casinos, the vast majority of tribes adamantly oppose 27. The larger casinos currently share nearly $150 million with tribes operating small casinos or none at all.

Voters simply aren't buying what the Proposition 27 camp has been trying to sell.

"People believe homelessness is a big problem, but they're apparently not making a connection to Prop. 27," said Mark Baldassare, the PPIC president and pollster.

Only recently, on major game telecasts, has the 27 side been telling viewers what the proposition really does: allow fans to bet on their teams without leaving the couch.

"If you're a sports fan who wants to bet on games, that's what you need to hear as opposed to a lot of other things," Baldassare says.

Meanwhile, an obscene record $470 million already has been raised by both sides in this TV ad war.

Voters are fed up with the ad bombardment and confused, I figure.

"If there's confusion, voters are going to take a hike," Baldassare says.

In this fight, the conflicting claims about Proposition 27 have rubbed off on 26 and created confusion about it. Voters are turned off by both measures.

They also must realize that more gambling — particularly online — would mean more gambling addiction.

"Online sports betting could make it more difficult for people with gambling addiction to avoid placing bets," the legislative analyst wrote in the state's official voters' guide. "This could increase the number of people who might need government assistance."

Californians seem content with the gambling that exists. There are 66 tribal casinos, 84 card rooms, 29 fairs with racetracks and 23,000 stores selling lottery tickets.

You can also bet on horse races at home — the one sport California OKs for online wagering. An estimated 60% of horse race bets are placed online, Fenton says. Around 30% are made at 23 simulcast facilities. Just 10% are wagered at tracks.

Racing's efforts to bring more people to the tracks weren't helped by image-damaging thoroughbred fatalities in 2019. More than 100 horses died at California tracks that year. Since then, the industry has reformed its horse medicating, and deaths have dropped dramatically.

But in this ballot contest, horse racing has been left in the lurch. It's never mentioned.

And with Proposition 26 not even promoting itself, why should voters buy into it? Proposition 27 has always been a lousy bet. They're both losers.

Next time, the tracks should pick a better horse.

Political columnist George Skelton has covered government and politics for nearly 60 years and for The Los Angeles Times since 1974.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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