How relevant is harness racing to the future of the gaming industry?
Given that the chief tool of the sport is the very embodiment of obsolescence - the buggy whip - the answer is not very, said John, a horseplayer betting at the Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville on a recent afternoon.
"I'm not sure I know anyone who actually watches it," said the Needham retiree, who was in Plainridge's simulcasting theater to bet on thoroughbred races at faraway tracks in Kentucky and Florida. "Maybe it would be something to bring the grandkids to, so they could see the pretty horses."
Until the casino showdown on Beacon Hill in March, Plainridge owner Gary Piontkowski seemed to be about as relevant to the gambling debate in Massachusetts as his sport. Sure, casino developers like Donald Trump had paid courtesy calls to Plainridge, but the track's location was viewed by many in the gaming industry as being too close to the Southeastern Massachusetts territory of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which is expected to be a major player in the future of gambling in the state.
That made Piontkowski the odd man out, as devel opers and Governor Deval Patrick talked about putting resort casinos in Marlborough, New Bedford, Revere, East Boston, Palmer . . . seemingly everywhere except Plainville. In the race for casino billions, Plainridge and Piontkowski were a scratch.
But that changed dramatically on March 19, when Patrick's plan for three resort casinos came out of the House Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies on the wrong side of a 10-to-8 vote. Word spread that the swing ballot had been cast by state Representative Richard Ross after an intense lobbying effort by Piontkowski, a constituent of the Wrentham Republican. Already short on votes in the House, the Patrick plan was essentially doomed by the committee report, which assured an up-or-down vote by the full House and foreclosed any chance by supporters to offer amendments that might win votes to their side.
Suddenly, Piontkowski was a player, not just a spectator. Yet even some people who support him say they are still puzzled by how risky and high-profile Piontkowski's power play was.
By holding himself out as a key instrument in the death of Patrick's casino plan, Piontkowski risked alienating the administration, the casino developers, and the state's labor unions, among others. In his bid for a major role, he left a large number of burning bridges in his wake, political and gaming industry observers said, even as the state's tracks do not appear to be any closer to getting the slot machines they have always coveted.
Piontkowski declined to discuss the issues involved, instead issuing a brief statement through a spokeswoman. People who know him describe him as intelligent, impulsive, intense, and mercurial.
State Representative David L. Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat, has been one of the biggest boosters of "racinos" - the term used by lawmakers for a proposal to place slot machines and other casino-style gaming at the state's racetracks as an alternative to full-fledged resort casinos. He calls Piontkowski "a self-starter and an ambitious guy."
"I think that he did it for survival," Flynn said in a recent interview. "A casino wasn't going to help him or any of the tracks."
By taking on the issue in a high-profile manner, Flynn said, Piontkowski helped reframe the debate about gaming and state revenue from a discussion of casinos to one about racinos.
With the racetrack owners ready to almost immediately put up as much as $50 million each for slot machine licenses, the administration and state lawmakers should be looking hard at racinos as the slow US economy and the home-mortgage crisis continue to take a toll on state revenues, he said.
Allowing racinos would also save jobs at the state's four permanent racetracks - Plainridge, the Suffolk Downs thoroughbred track in East Boston, and two dog tracks, Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere and Raynham Park, Flynn said.
Lawmakers looking for revenue "are going to have no place else to go next year," Flynn said. "And it doesn't make much sense to me to be putting people out of business when we are trying to create jobs. I don't think those guys can hang on without slot machines," he said of the racetrack owners. "It's impossible."
In his statement, Piontkowski confirmed that Plainville and all of the state's racetracks are operating in the red.
"Ninety-five percent of all US tracks are losing money except tracks with slots," the statement reads. It also pointed across the state border to the Twin River casino in stating, "Plainridge Racecourse's closest competitors in Rhode Island gave $232 million to the state of Rhode Island last year alone, as well as investing another $250 million in new construction."
Other sources in the state's gaming industry, meanwhile, said they believe that Piontkowski also had another motive for being seen as the man who killed casinos: attempting to repair his rocky personal relationship with House Speaker Sal DiMasi. On several occasions, gaming industry insiders said, Piontkowski has asked intermediaries to help smooth things out with DiMasi, the Democrat from Boston's North End who has been the state's highest profile and most powerful opponent of casino-style gambling.
Some saw the high-profile swaying of Ross as a move by Piontkowski to get back into DiMasi's good graces.
Others, however, called the theory implausible, pointing out that the committee report vote would have been 9 to 9 if Ross had voted yes, and that a tie vote has the same procedural effect as a defeat.
In his statement, Piontkowski denied making a "deal" with DiMasi. In news reports at the time of the vote, the House speaker also strongly denied that any deals had been struck for Ross's vote.
One fellow racetrack owner said he wishes Piontkowski had been able to strike a deal for a vote on casino gaming at racetracks.
"I think Gary just found an opportunity to exercise some control and he took it," said the track owner, who requested anonymity. "But racetracks have been operating in this state for more than 40 years, paying taxes and providing jobs, and we don't deserve to get kicked to the curb."