August 22, 2014

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Horse racing tracks installing disputed gambling machines

COLUMBUS — Horse racing tracks, handed a defeat last year on a ballot measure to allow slot machines at the parks, have begun installing kiosks similar to slots in anticipation that Attorney General Marc Dann will lose his court fight to outlaw the games.

The makers of the machines, including Tic Tac Fruit and Nudge Master, contend the popular bar games require skill, and therefore are not games of chance, which are illegal under Ohio law.

Racetracks in Columbus and Cincinnati have begun bringing in the machines despite the ongoing legal battle between the state and the games’ manufacturers.

“We came in with 10 over last weekend, and we’re looking to install more while we can, another dozen or so this weekend,” said Michael Weiss, executive vice president of Beulah Park near Columbus.

“They’re putting them in halls around us and we thought we should be able to provide the same games for our customers as our competition,” he said.

River Downs in Cincinnati also is installing some of the gaming consoles, Dann spokesman Leo Jennings said. The state planned to send investigators to visit the tracks over the weekend, although Jennings did not specify what, if any, action those investigators might take.

Many of Ohio’s horse racing tracks claim they’ve suffered financially since voters in November resoundingly defeated a statewide measure — 57 percent to 43 percent — that would have allowed electronic slot machines at Ohio’s seven horse racing tracks and two freestanding casinos in downtown Cleveland.

“The courts have been ruling (the games are) OK. Why should the tracks just sit on the sidelines and not participate?” asked lobbyist Neil S. Clark, who worked on last year’s slots campaign.

The move to install the machines at tracks could backfire and spur lawmakers to pass legislation tightening restrictions on the machines, especially after voters defeated the gambling proposal last year, House Speaker Jon Husted said.

“Legislators are pretty astute at listening to what the public tells them, and when they see these slot machines are going in at racetracks, it makes their decision very easy,” Husted said.

Other racetracks, including Northfield Park near Cleveland, were holding off on purchasing the machines pending the outcome of the state’s legal challenge.

“I don’t think there is much of a doubt that there would be a big boost in attracting people other than those who come to the races,” said Tom Aldridge, general manager of Northfield Park.

Gov. Ted Strickland issued an executive order in August banning wagering devices that pay out any cash or prizes worth more than $10. The manufacturers of Tic Tac Fruit and Nudge Master sought and received a restraining order blocking enforcement of the order while the legality of the games plays out in the courts.

Ohio law, passed in 2003, banned slot machines but allowed for “skill-based amusement machines” whose outcomes aren’t dictated largely by chance. That wording has led to complicated court interpretations and distinctions that have made the law nearly unenforcable, Dann has said.