Chomping at the Bit

Chomping at the Bit

Milton McGregor promises to bring horse racing back to Birmingham, but video gambling has to be part of the deal.

The electronic marquee in the middle of the blighted infield at the Birmingham Race Course repeatedly flashed an ironic message: Action Capital of the South. Yet the horse track that encircles the smaller greyhound racing oval is almost completely overgrown by weeds. There’s probably more action on Fourth Avenue North in downtown Birmingham, if one knows where to look. But give Alabama gambling magnate Milton McGregor a gold star for persistence. For several years, McGregor has been Indian-wrestling with state legislators in an attempt to get electronic gaming machines into the Birmingham track.

On February 25, McGregor lured the media to his Birmingham Race Course with the return of live horse racing as bait. McGregor hopes that the prestige and allure of horse racing, not to mention his pledge to kick in $35 to $40 million in improvements as a “facelift” for the facility, will knock down the legislative wall between him and video gambling at the track. Live horse racing ended at the Birmingham facility in 1995. Approximately 3,000 video gaming machines, if allowed, are expected to generate up to $3.5 million; money which can ensure that quality horse races (with minimum purses of $80,000 each day) can be staged at the Birmingham track. McGregor’s goal is to have the horses running by the spring of 2005.

Featured at the press conference were video clips of testimonies from people who had won small fortunes on video gambling. An elderly woman appeared on screen, the excitement in her voice impossible to conceal. “One day I had seven jackpots in one day!” she shouted. “Seven jackpots, $33,000!”

McGregor repeatedly stated that the point of the media gathering was to announce plans to return “quality horse racing” to the state, and not to complain about unregulated Native American casinos operating in Alabama without paying state taxes. Nonetheless, during the next 10 minutes McGregor referenced the video gambling operated by the Poarch Creek Indian tribe several times. “I’m not opposed to Native Americans in any shape, form, or fashion. I’m opposed to being treated differently,” he complained. Insisting that he was only advocating the same kind of gaming for his facilities available to the Poarch Creek tribe, McGregor insisted that his focus was to pay his portion. “I’d never be in a position where I wouldn’t pay my fair share of taxes,” he said, adding that “Native Americans have all forms of machine gambling . . . But this is not about gaming, it’s a tax issue.” He insisted that horse racing would have to be “subsidized” with gaming machines—without that there would be no horse racing.

McGregor noted the difficulty in competing with 32 casinos (in Mississippi), four Native American casinos (in Alabama), and the Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia lotteries. The longer he talked, his references to “Native Americans” eventually evolved into intimations to “Indians.” When asked if he’d like to see a referendum on gaming machines, McGregor responded, “I’d prefer no election [referendum] at all. I’d prefer doing what the Indians do now. They didn’t have an election.”

Jockey Shane Sellers, one of the nation’s top riders who currently races out of the Fairgrounds horse track in New Orleans, also addressed the gathering. According to a press kit distributed by Ballard Advertising, whose address is listed on the packet as the same as that of the Birmingham Race Course, Sellers is a “big NASCAR fan and Dale Earnhardt fan” who has released a music CD featuring his composition “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Earnhardt.” The jockey, who has 13 Kentucky Derby mounts to his credit, told the media throng that “on-track gaming has been the biggest boost to the racing industry” and has allowed jockeys such as himself to return to Louisiana to make their living. Sellers concluded with a glance in McGregor’s direction as he softly said, “God bless you, Mr. McGregor.”

Outside, a dozen or so men who look like they’ve been out of luck for years milled around the gate at the entrance of the race track at 10:30 a.m., waiting for simulcast betting from other horse and dog tracks around the nation to begin. When asked if any in the group were excited about the prospect of live horse racing returning to Alabama, they collectively shrugged their shoulders and returned to studying their racing tip sheets. Maybe this will be the day their $33,000 jackpot comes in. And maybe these guys were the ones who jockey Shane Sellers should have asked God to bless. Because without them, Milton McGregor might not have amassed the fortune with which he has lined his expensive suits. &

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