Racetrack revival in Pownal

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(Host) Commentator Tim McQuiston says that the thunder of hooves rounding the clubhouse turn would be music to the ears of many in Bennington.

(McQuiston) Although the Green Mountain Racetrack in Pownal has been mostly quiet for many years, Governor Douglas suggested during his campaign that it might be returned to its former glory as a thoroughbred race track. But don’t expect to jump to your feet at the call of “They’re off!” any time soon. The track has never been financially successful. Its history was glorious, but brief.

Back in the late 50’s, the Rooney family of Pittsburgh, which also owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, was looking for a place for Sunday racing. At that time “Blue Laws” in most of the Northeast meant that you couldn’t buy alcohol or gamble on Sundays, including horse racing. But Vermont didn’t have such a ban. Bennington is just a win, place or show from Saratoga, and as fast as you could say peri-mutuel, Pownal had a thriving race track, almost.

The track opened in 1963, but lost money in its first year, even with the advantage of Sunday racing. Eventually the Rooneys turned to harness racing and then to greyhound dog racing. In the meantime, New York allowed for Sunday racing. The owners finally gave up, closing the track in 1992.

Horse racing is a labor-intensive and glamorous industry, if a little seedy around edges. The Pownal track is a big facility, with a 16,000-seat grandstand, barns for 900 horses and 11,000 parking spaces. The modern economics of horse racing demand that patrons not only get to bet on the race they’re watching, but also on horse races in other parts of the country. That’s called simulcast off-track betting.

Current Vermont law allows for horse racing and simulcast betting at the race track, but only on race days. Bennington voters got the impression that Douglas would favor simulcast betting year-round if elected. Governor Douglas now says he supports such betting only during the 100-day season, even if there aren’t races that day, but, again, only at the track. He doesn’t want to fully legalize off track betting because it would allow for OTB sites to open up anywhere in the state.

Douglas is not so much a gambler as he is a pragmatic politician. He wants to provide greater economic opportunity to a part of the state that’s struggling and in the meantime make happy thousands of registered voters. But racetrack proponents don’t see how it could survive financially without year-round, simulcast betting.

Reliable legend has it that Art Rooney Sr, who founded the Steelers, amassed a good part of his fortune by winning more than a quarter million dollars betting on horses at Saratoga and Empire City during a two-week run in 1937. That’s a lucky streak. But the governor and the good people of Bennington shouldn’t bet on reviving Pownal. They’re just not likely to get that lucky.

This is Timothy McQuiston

Timothey McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business amagazine.

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