Bill steers casino revenues away from equine industry

Dr. Scott Ahlschwede has spent his entire adult life around horses.

“They’ve been a partner of man for a long, long time, and we have a bond with them and a connection with them,” Ahlschwede said.

Along with running a veterinary clinic together, he and his wife Patricia operate a thoroughbred breeding farm in Saratoga County, where between 30 and 40 young racehorses are born each year.

“Part of it may be genetic,” said Ahlschwede, who grew up in Texas. “I am a natural animal person, a natural farmer.”

He said keeping the farm running smoothly requires both constant devotion and a steady cash flow.

What You Need To Know

  • A bill recently introduced in the state Assembly would end the roughly $230 million annual payments the thoroughbred industry receives from the state’s casinos
  • Leaders of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Association fear the legislation would ‘pull the plug’ on the state’s $3 billion equine industry
  • Assemblymember Carrie Woerner opposes the bill, saying the thoroughbred industry accounts for roughly 19,000 jobs across the state
  • The bill’s sponsor is Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan

“It’s highly expensive,” he said. “There are so many costs: maintaining the fences, the roads, the barns, the utilities, the mortgage.”

Ahlschwede says annual feed and hay bills alone can run into six figures. Despite the high expense, he says rich purses at New York racetracks have fueled more investment throughout the industry and allowed many of the state’s nearly 270 breeding farms to thrive.

“It’s a cycle,” Ahlschwede said. “It trickles down to so many things that we don’t ever see just standing here.”

The high purses are largely possible because of roughly $230 million in annual payments from New York’s casino industry. The money, which also supports financial awards for breeders and upgrades at the racetracks, was approved by the state Legislature a decade ago.

The payments were a topic of discussion at the Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee’s hearing this month because of a new bill that proposes diverting the funding away from breeding and racing and to education and other social services.

“I’m going to fight that [bill] tooth and nail because I think this industry is of the utmost importance to the state of New York,” Assembly member and committee chair Gary Pretlow said during the hearing.

“I don’t want to be Henny Penny, like ‘the sky is falling,’ but I take seriously any piece of legislation that would have a negative economic impact on the communities I represent,” said Assemblymember Carrie Woerner, who sits on the committee and whose district is home to the Saratoga Race Course and several breeding farms.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, was not at the hearing and declined to comment on this story, but the legislation has the backing of animal rights groups that support the end of racing.

Woerner says the proposal could devastate New York’s $3 billion equine industry.

“The monies that come from VLTs are supporting 19,000 jobs across the entire state,” she said.

Najja Thompson and Tom Gallo, leaders of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Association, also fear the impact would be catastrophic.

“What you are trying to do is pull the plug on an industry that benefits hundreds of thousands of people,” said Gallo, a longtime breeder and the organization’s president.

“Without that money coming through, it would have a disastrous effect on the breeding industry in the state and racing overall,” said Thompson, who was named the association’s executive director about a year ago.

As he prepares to welcome a new crop of babies on the farm, Ahlschwede says the bill gives him more than enough cause for concern.

“The industry would go away, the farms would close,” he said. “I don’t know what would happen to this farm. It would go barren.”