The battle for sports betting in California is getting fierce. Groups from all around the Golden State are weighing in on Proposition 26 and Proposition 27 and making no secret where their allegiances lie.
Earlier this week, a coalition of animal welfare activists announced its opposition to Prop. 26. This measure would legalize in-person sports betting at California tribal casinos and California horse racing venues.
It’s the latest development surrounding the tribal sports betting initiative, one that has featured strong opinions on both sides. We’ll fact-check some of the takes here.
Horse racing safety claims ring hollow
Central to the statement issued by the animal welfare coalition were claims of widespread abuse in horse racing. Quotes discussed the industry’s lack of accountability for animal safety and concern over handing tracks a new revenue stream.
Readily-available data, though, shows California racetracks have made great strides in this regard. Just four years ago, 144 horses died at tracks around the Golden State. From June 2020 through June 2021, that number was cut exactly in half, to 72.
Santa Anita Park celebrated its safest meet in history earlier this year. Three years after a rash of fatalities at the “Great Race Place,” there were no musculoskeletal racing deaths in races contested on the main dirt track during the 2021-22 winter-spring meet.
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club has also made sweeping changes to improve safety. Race-related horse deaths declined from 12 in 2016 to just one in 2020.
The goal of zero fatalities in horse racing is likely impossible. Accidents happen, and there are times in a horse’s stride where its entire weight is on one or two legs. However, acting as though California horse racing venues have not put an appropriate focus on safety is misleading. Major tracks in the Golden State are, in fact, as safe as they’ve ever been.
Will Prop. 26 improve the horse racing product?
Horse racing venues, of course, are excited about what in-person sports betting in California could bring to racetracks. In an interview with USA Today, Aidan Butler, COO of the Stronach Group’s 1/ST Racing division, said:
“An extra revenue stream, the revitalization of the building, the upsides of increased employment and stimulating these beautiful, old venues with more energy and fun is going to have a massive impact, I’m sure of it.”
It’s true that sportsbooks would provide additional reasons for people to come to the track. In addition to revenue from sports bets, concession sales would also figure to improve. If people are cross-sold the racing product and come back to play the ponies, it’s a huge win.
However, the money that could be made with retail sports betting pales in comparison to the potential revenue of online sports betting. Some within the industry are skeptical of the benefits such a model would have for horse racing, too.
“If the tribal initiative passes, Santa Anita can build a sportsbook,” said California Authority of Racing Fairs Executive Director Larry Swartzlander in a PlayCA-exclusive interview earlier this summer. “Who just closed down their sports wagering? Churchill Downs. It doesn’t work at a single, brick-and-mortar facility. Eighty-five to 90% of wagers are on the internet. You’re not going to make any money.”
What’s next for California sports betting?
The war of words ahead of the November election isn’t just loud. It’s expensive.
As of early-August, spending on all campaigns involving Prop. 26 and Prop. 27 has surpassed $356 million. Prop. 27, in fact, is set to become the most expensive ballot question in California history.
In addition to green-lighting sportsbooks at casinos and racetracks, Prop. 26 would allow tribal casinos to spread craps and roulette. It would also ban wagering on California’s college sports teams.
Prop. 27, meanwhile, would earmark 85% of sports betting tax revenue for homelessness and mental health programs. The other 15% would go to economic development and assistance for tribes that don’t participate in sports betting.
Stay tuned to PlayCA for the latest news and updates ahead of this year’s general election.