Milton McGregor: Birmingham Race Course needs another form of gaming to survive
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — As people nationwide bet less and less money on greyhound races, dog tracks around the country are having to find other ways to cope with that falling revenue.
But in Alabama, Birmingham Race Course owner Milton McGregor says his course is at a disadvantage when competing for gambling dollars.
The Birmingham Race Course offers betting on live greyhound races several times a week, and betting on simulcasts of horse and dog races across the country. In other parts of the country, greyhound tracks offer other gambling options, from poker tables to slot machines.
“The people in other states who I’ve talked to are absolutely amazed and dumbfounded that our state government hasn’t done something in terms of allowing other forms of gaming for the tracks in Alabama,” McGregor, the majority owner of the Jefferson County Racing Association, which operates the course, said.
Declining bets on the track
McGregor bought the Birmingham Race Course from AmSouth Bank in the early 1990s and the course opened in October 1992, after a referendum allowing greyhound racing was passed.
In 1993, the course’s first full year of operation, attendees wagered $116 million on live dog racing, according to gambling totals provided by the Jefferson County Racing Association. The handle for dog racing never topped $100 million again. In 2013, the dog racing handle came in at just under $7.8 million.
The course’s total gambling revenue has also fallen, from more than $163 million in 1993 to just over $53 million in 2013, falling each year. Over the past two decades, the share of that revenue from live greyhound racing has fallen from nearly 71 percent in ’93 to 14.6 percent last year.
More of that revenue is coming from simulcast racing, though total bets on both simulcast dog and simulcast horse racing have fallen for more than a decade.
Since McGregor bought the closed, overgrown track in 1992, the course has paid more than $112 million in taxes from pari-mutuel betting –a betting pool in which those who bet on competitors finishing in the first three places share the total amount bet — including more than $28 million to Alabama’s General Fund.
“That’s $112 million that wouldn’t have been paid had I not bought the track and we did all the things that we did,” McGregor said.
While McGregor said the track has made money every year — he said he’d close it if it didn’t — it hasn’t been bringing in gambling revenue like it used to, or like other tracks around the country.
In West Memphis, Ark., Southland Park Gaming and Racing is going through a renaissance. The course, just across the river from Memphis, added electronic gaming machines to its gambling repertoire in 2006. Last year, it brought in more than $2 billion in gaming revenue, according to The Commercial Appeal.
McGregor points to Southland and other tracks like it around the country as models for how race courses can compete with other gambling options. In Florida and Minnesota, for example, greyhound tracks house poker rooms that bring in more money. Other states allow slot machines at the courses.
In Alabama, McGregor says he has to compete with casinos in Mississippi, tracks in Florida and lotteries in Georgia and Tennessee without the ability to add another form of gaming.
“Alabama sort of stands out when you look at what all these other states have done,” McGregor said.
McGregor said the Birmingham Race Course tried out electronic Las Vegas-style Sweepstakes machines in the 2000s. The course was raided by state and local authorities and the machines were seized. Even if he were allowed to, though, McGregor said he wouldn’t want to bring those machines back.
“We’ve got to have something a lot more attractive to customers than sweepstakes machines,” he said.
In the past, other greyhound tracks in Alabama used electronic bingo machines as a secondary source of revenue, often running afoul of the law. Greenetrack, in Eutaw, used to have live dog racing but is now down to just simulcast races. In March, Greenetrack suspended its electronic bingo operations ahead of raids by Alabama State Troopers and agents with the attorney general’s office.
There were never bingo machines at the Birmingham Race Course, but McGregor had electronic bingo at his VictoryLand casino in Macon County. That course was shut down last February when state law enforcement found the electronic bingo machines to be illegal.
Without the ability to support racing with an alternate form of gaming, McGregor said, the dog track is struggling. McGregor said he’d even like to bring back horse racing — which ended in Birmingham in 1995 because it never drew in enough bettors — but some other form of gaming would have to support it.
“We’re like any other business, any other industry,” McGregor said. “We can’t compete with any of our competitors if we don’t have the right tools. We don’t want preferential treatment at the Birmingham Race Course, but we’d like to be treated fairly.”