The honored and respected industry of Ohio harness racing has a long and illustrious history. However, after tough competition in recent years with other states, the future looked bleak for Ohio’s return to the top of the sport. But, after hard work by horsemen and legislators, the state’s horse racing is finally regaining its former glory.
“Ohio is the heart of it all,” said John Mossbarger who, along with his family (father Don Mossbarger, brother Jay Mossbarger, Jay’s son Jake, and Robert Schwartz), co-owns and operates Midland Acres, the state’s largest standard-bred breeding operation based in Bloomingburg. “Historically, back in the 1950s when the fair fund law was put in place by legislation, harness racing in Ohio was the starting ground for a bunch of green young horses to go out east.”
The importance of filling out classes in the extremely popular New York racing scene put Ohio at the top of the harness racing world. But as fate would have it, the golden age of the state’s horse racing would not stick around forever.
“The lottery came on the scene in 1972 and we started to see a little decline in people going to the races and people placing wagers. It was more convenient if they wanted to place a bet, they’d do it at the local lottery station or gas station,” he said. “As the lottery grew, horse racing didn’t really change. They didn’t have the vision. They didn’t have a plan. They didn’t have a strategy to move forward and it was always too easy.”
This lack of adaptability would eventually come back to hurt Ohio racing.
“Then in the late 1990s, Las Vegas came east. West Virginia in 1992 was the first time they placed slot machines at a race track,” Mossbarger said. “So basically it was adding something new to the menu. Now when you go to the racetrack, you can bet on the horses or play the slots in West Virginia.”
“It was a trial basis, but it was very successful and it was good for racing.”
After the success in West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana all added what is now known as expanded gaming. For several years, horse owners avoided Ohio due to its lack of legislation that allowed slot gambling at horse tracks, a major point of attraction for audiences. Without competing legislation, Ohio’s horse racing was being left behind.
“East of the Mississippi is where 90% of harness racing is, but Ohio wasn’t able to be on a level playing field,” Mossbarger said. “The racing industry started getting very active politically trying to get the expansion of gaming at the racetracks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We worked hard for 15 years and we were going down the tubes. The number of mares being bred dropped drastically. We went from breeding 4,000 mares in the 1970s and 1980s down to 690 mares. That was a great economic impact.”
In that time, bordering states were absorbing the exodus of Ohio horses. In turn, the state was seeing a dying horse racing industry and the largest standardbred farm in Ohio was wondering what the future would hold. Mossbarger, who is a past president of the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association, member of the U.S. Trotting Association, and serves on the state board of the Ohio Farm Bureau, helped to lead the charge for legislation to answer to problem and provide a future for the farm.
“It’s hard to move a farm. It’s hard to move dirt,” he said.
In the end, they did open up a satellite operation in Indiana to follow the changing nature of the industry.
“If we didn’t have the racinos, racing would have died on the vine. We as a commercial breeding farm — this is our livelihood — we would not be here,” he said.
Eventually, the hard work of Ohio horse racing advocates proving successful. Voters recently made casinos and the ever-popular Video Lottery Terminals (VLT’s) an option in Ohio.
“Now, with the graces of Governor Kasich, they passed the constitutional amendment to have four standalone casinos that opened the door for racing,” he said. “With the economic impact that horse racing could have, the legislators saw it wise to enact the VLT’s through the lottery commission at the racetracks.”
After several years of dealing with the challenge of attracting crowds, the once extremely popular sport of horse racing is now regaining its former status. The recent state policy changes are again bringing horsemen and money back into Ohio. Numbers from Midland Acres show the dramatic reboot.
“So here we are in 2014. In 2011, we bred about 680 mares. In 2012, when they saw what was happening, the number went up to 1,500. Last year we bred 2,200 and this year we’ll approach 3,000 mares being bred,” Mossbarger said.
There are currently four harness tracks and three thoroughbred tracks in Ohio. Two new tracks are on their way to completion.
“It’s a pretty exciting time. The number of mares is increasing. It’s coming back,” he said.
Mossbarger is cautious, though, not to expect a complete resurgence of the horse racing industry to its previous numbers of the 1970s due to a decline in popularity of the sport overall. That being said, the upsurge of income has wide-reaching implications and many are wondering how they may see that money’s effect in their own communities.
“With the increase of gaming, that new revenue has certainly helped increase the purses, increase the economic development, and the activity of horse racing,” Mossbarger said.
The improved revenue will come back to Ohio communities partially in the form of helping county fairs. There are 65 of the county fairs that feature racing.
“When you bet a dollar at the racetrack, a portion of that dollar will go into the fair fund and the fair fund would go back to the 88 counties or the 93 agricultural societies,” said Mossbarger.
Through legislation regarding Ohio gambling, racinos are able to collect about two-thirds of their proceeds while the state takes about a third overall for taxes. Horsemen then receive a portion of that profit made by the racino, somewhere around 10%.
Mossbarger said of that 10%, the money goes towards purses, marketing, health, insurance, retirement, county fair purses, money to run the county fairs, and more.
“You have to think of horse racing as a niche market for agriculture. Hay, grain, the blacksmith, the horse trailers, all the direct jobs and indirect jobs to horse racing. So when you look at horse racing, it creates a lot of economic impact in the state,” he said.
Mossbarger said agricultural organizations will be crucial for the future of this new horseracing environment.
“We have to be cautious and aware of the fact that racino operators have used horsemen and horse racing to get their foot in the door. Now we’re in the room with them and there is a back door,” Mossbarger said. ”We have to be careful we don’t get pushed out the back door and that’s where the work of Farm Bureau and the horsemen’s associations comes in — telling legislators the importance of agriculture and the economic impact that horse racing brings to Ohio.”
To stay at the top of their game, Ohio horse racing must stay adaptable and that means take part in change. He said that better marketing strategies and simple items like decreasing the wait between races at tracks would help to gain spectators in the sport.
“The future looks good but we have to make racing relevant today and we have to make this change real,” he said. “We’ve been so traditional in our sport, is it time to change the game a little bit, and make it more exciting to keep the fan base alive.”
He also mentioned that along with popularity comes competition. Spectators can expect to see the quality of horses at the tracks to increase in the coming years.
“Everybody has to upgrade their pedigrees now. I use the analogy of people in Ohio are racing horses like Brandon Weeden of the Browns,” Mossbarger said. “Now Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are coming in. The number of horses are going to increase and the quality of horses are going to increase so everybody is going to have to upgrade their stock.”