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Debate exists over horse racing in Hawaii

July 4, 2014 - 9:27am

The horse races scheduled for Friday at Parker Ranch Rodeo Arena mark one of the few times Hawaii residents can witness horse racing in person without leaving the islands.

That doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon, even though a movement to bring pari-mutuel horse racing to Hawaii has been building momentum.

Parker Ranch is among the organizations that want to see horse racing on the islands.

“We would love it,” said Nahua Guilloz, senior manager and corporate secretary for Parker Ranch. “That would bring the public back into why it’s important that we have horses.”

It is estimated there are more than 15,000 horses in Hawaii. Horse racing proponents argue that adding tracks would benefit the equine industry as a whole.

“You can’t take care of horse racing and not the entire horse industry,” said Laurence Todd, editor and publisher of Malama Lio — The Hawaii Horse Journal, who is one Hawaii’s strongest horse racing advocates. “It stabilizes an industry that has a sufficient amount of horses.”

Political backing

The Big Island has a strong proponent of legalized gambling in State Sen. Malama Solomon, D-North Hawaii. She has introduced a number of bills aimed at legalizing forms of gaming in Hawaii. Among those is Hawaii Senate Bill 918, which she co-sponsored in 2013 with Donovan M. Dela Cruz, D-North Oahu.

The bill states that “the time has come for the state to diversify its economy away from tourism and focus on alternatives, such as developing green, high-return, high-technology, and agricultural industries. The time has also come to make the hard choice to support a form of gaming in the state. Horse racing has a long and honorable history locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Dela Cruz also introduced in 2013 Senate Bill 920, which says:

“Horse racing would also provide economic development opportunities, including the expansion of horse breeding, feed, and other related agricultural industries, as well as increased sources of revenue from newly generated business, hotel, restaurant, and airline activities. In addition to an increased need for veterinarians, new jobs, such as stablehands, jockeys, track maintenance and food service personnel, and computer and telecommunications operators, would have a multiplier effect on creating more new jobs in other support and travel industries.”

Neither bill will carry over to the next legislative session. Numerous attempts to reach Solomon regarding pari-mutuel horse racing were unsuccessful.

A losing bet?

The movement to bring the sport of kings back to Hawaii is far from a one-horse race. It faces great opposition in the form of the Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

Violet Horvath, the group’s first vice president, said adding any kind of legalized gambling, including pari-mutuel horse racing, would be a huge mistake for the state.

“We’ve heard many of the arguments before,” she said. “We are very concerned about Hawaii and we understand the financial difficulties the state is having. We’re also concerned about individuals. After so many years studying the numbers, you understand, this is not a winning proposition for the state. It really will change this place, and not for the better.”

The group has plenty of support behind it, with member organizations ranging from churches to small business advocates to the Honolulu Police Department.

The negative consequences of legalized gambling are even more widespread, according to Horvath. The group says that legalized gambling can lead to a multitude of issues that have a negative impact on quality of life.

“Legalized gambling would alter this place, and not in a good way,” Horvath said.

Past, present and future

Hawaii has strong ties to horse racing. King David Kalakaua founded the Hawaiian Jockey Club in 1872 and the sport was popular with Hawaiian royalty. Dela Cruz’s Senate bill says that Parker Ranch imported top racing lines from the mainland and England to develop thoroughbreds on the Big Island and that horse racing flourished on Oahu until 1952.

“We found that Hawaii had a rich history with horse racing,” said Todd of The Hawaii Horse Journal. “It’s not something to bring back for nostalgia, but to be part of Hawaii’s culture.”

And also to be part of its future.

Guilloz said that legalized horse tracks would give Hawaii’s agriculture industry a shot in the arm.

“It would encourage kids to get interested in that industry,” she said. “The average age of farmers is 50. The same with ranchers. How do we encourage our kids to get interested? I think it would be great because it spotlights agriculture.”

A recent Big Island 4-H Club auction featured just four steers, which Guilloz said is a fraction of the entries that similar events have drawn in previous years.

“Kids are not interested in agriculture, and that’s sad,” she said.

The introduction of pari-mutuel horse racing also would strengthen the veterinary sciences in Hawaii, according to industry supporters.

“Kids that want to be a veterinarian have to leave the island,” Todd said.

‘The slippery slope’

Todd grew up around the horse racing industry and said that recent changes have made it much more humane.

”We had some people say horse racing is evil,” he said. “We know what the ugliness is about horse racing, but it has come a long way. Hawaii has a history that is unlike other states in terms of its care and respect for horses. Their legacy has been a part of that.”

Horvath has a horse racing legacy of her own, and it’s a much more painful one. It’s also what makes her so adamant in her stance that the sport has no place in Hawaii.

“A lot of people see it as very benign,” she said. “My mother was a pathological gambler. That’s how she got hooked, was horse racing. For the next 50 years, it spiraled down. It almost bankrupted all of us.”

Any form of legalized gambling in Hawaii, from horse racing to lottery to bingo, would just be the beginning, according to Horvath’s group. From there, the gaming industry would continue to push for more forms of gambling.

“Call it what you want — the slippery slope, the camel’s nose under the tent, any kind of analogy or cliche, but it is true,” she said. “We’ve seen that in other states.”

So far, the anti-gambling coalition is holding off gaming proponents, but Horvath expects an even stronger push toward legalized gambling in the next legislative session.

There are already problem gamblers in Hawaii, Horvath said, and she believes that legalized gambling wouldn’t curb the problem but would only make it worse. And while there are thousands of residents who travel to Las Vegas to gamble each year, Horvath said there is a reason for that.

“They like to go because they want to get away,” she said. “They like to go, but they don’t want Vegas here.”