August 9, 2016
Tom LaMarra, Blood-Horse

Gov. Tom Wolf has told Pennsylvania Thoroughbred breeders the resumption of payment of breeder and stallion awards lies with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, so they plan to again ask the regulatory agency to free up the money.

Payment of the awards has been suspended since early this year because of “ambiguous” language in an omnibus horseracing reform bill signed into law in February. The wording that deals with the Thoroughbred breeding fund was somehow altered slightly, and the state Department of Agriculture, which governs Pennsylvania racing, raised questions over legality of the payments.

The Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, which by statute oversees administration of the breeding fund, is lobbying to have the payments restored. The breeders’ organization asked concerned individuals to send letters to Wolf, whose office also suggested statutory change is needed before payments can be made.

“The hardship to Thoroughbred breeders throughout Pennsylvania that has resulted from changes in the law is not lost on the department or the horse racing commission,” Michael Smith, executive deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, said in an Aug. 8 statement. “Unfortunately—even though the change was unintentional as has been stated by members of the General Assembly—the commonwealth does not have the latitude to ignore the law, regardless of how convenient it may be to do so.”

The PHBA July 27 asked the new nine-member PHRC to restore the funds based on an assessment by the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll that suggested the payments could be made under current law. A motion was made and seconded to restore the payments, but counsel for the racing commission said the matter requires more study and it was tabled until the next meeting in late August.

Breeders plan to attend the Aug. 24 meeting, perhaps in force, and again make their case. The PHBA in a memo to members noted that Wolf said authority rests with the PHRC.

“Our attorneys have submitted to the commission additional arguments regarding the proper interpretation of (the new racing law). So at the Aug. 24 meeting, we will review these arguments and then request a definitive vote on the tabled release of the breeding fund monies,” the organization said.

Roughly $4 million in breeder and stallion awards is being held by the Department of Agriculture, and the amount grows each racing day. Breeders have said the situation is wreaking havoc on the industry, members of which rely on prompt payment of the awards to continue operating their businesses.

The Department of Agriculture, however, didn’t indicate it plans to push the PHRC to restore the payments.

“We are 100% committed to working with the General Assembly and breeders to achieve the necessary legislative fix when the General Assembly returns to session,” Smith said. “Until then, the authority to authorize payments from the Pennsylvania Breeding Fund rests with the commission, which has voted to table the industry’s request for now because the law’s provisions cannot be ignored.

“Again, we recognize that breeders not receiving the award payments they have earned is causing hardship. That is certainly concerning to us, but the legal reality is that resuming those payments in their entirety requires a statutory fix, which is all the more reason to enact that change as soon as possible.”

The legislature is scheduled to return to the capital in September.