Atlantic City Race Course would receive close to $1 million for capital improvements next year under a proposal released Thursday by state lawmakers from a legislative gaming committee.
Under the bill, the race course would collect 90 percent of the Casino Simulcast Fund, a special fund set up in the 1990s when the casinos began carrying simulcast horseracing. The fund was designed to offset the loss of simulcast business at racetracks. Last year, the Atlantic City track received only 7 percent of the fund.
Supporters of ACRC, which operates in Mays Landing, long have argued they were by far the most affected by the competition from casinos. Aside from an annual six-day live meet, most of the track's business has been from simulcasting.
The windfall for ACRC would upset a current arrangement that gives most of the $1.3 million Casino Simulcast Fund to larger racetracks to the north.
Under the bill, ACRC would be given 90 percent of the fund annually, provided it uses the money in the first year mostly for capital improvements. In the future, the bill says, the money could help pay for additional live race days at the site.
Over the objections of horsemen's groups, ACRC representatives told members of the state Senate Committee on State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation that their track should be the obvious beneficiary of the fund.
"We believe we deserve a slice of the pie. I respectfully submit this is our slice of the pie," Maureen Bugdon, president of ACRC, told the committee, adding that the course was in "financial distress."
The bill's proposal would overturn the current way that money is distributed.
In recent years, ACRC received only a fraction of the money, as little as 4 percent of the fund's balance, which in turn represents a percentage taken from casino simulcast pool earnings.
Last year, ACRC received just 7 percent of the fund balance, Bugdon said, and in 2009 it received 6 percent.
Under the new proposal, it would be the larger tracks that would split a small percentage: the state-run Meadowlands and Monmouth Park and private Freehold Raceway would split the remaining 10 percent equally.
An amendment also ruled out using any of the money for purse subsidies.
However, the bill faces strong opposition from horsemen's groups, who face a year of changes as the two state-run racetracks transition to private operators and a commitment to become self-sustaining.
Michael Campbell, director of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association, opposed the bill, saying the simulcast money could substitute for $775,000 in state contributions that come from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and go toward the TBA's efforts to keep horse farms and breeders in the state.
As private operators, including Resorts Casino Hotel co-owner Morris Bailey, prepare to take over Monmouth Park, the NJSEA contribution would disappear.
"The TBA is in danger of losing that contribution," Campbell said. "That's 30 percent of our revenue."
He asked for the TBA to receive the first $775,000 of the Casino Simulcast Fund.
Michael Musto, head of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, also opposed the bill, suggesting instead that the money be used for purse subsidies and to extend the number of racing days on ACRC's schedule.
But Bugdon said the other tracks already had benefit from special funds, including a three-year annual subsidy from casino revenue to winners' purses.
She contrasted Atlantic City Race Course's lack of subsidy to Monmouth Park's "elite meet," funded through various sources to the tune of $1 million in purses per day.
"Please give me $30 million to run Breeders Cup races, purse supplements, or $1 million a day to produce an elite meet," she said, drawing that contrast with other tracks' funding. "I suggest Atlantic City Race Course would look spectacular and do their best to make that happen.
Bugdon said the new award would match "what has been given time and time again in other funding to racetracks, even for one day of racing at another racetrack."
Roy Foster, president of the AFL-CIO Atlantic and Cape May Central Labor Council, also supported the bill, proposed by Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, and Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic. When casinos started carrying simulcasting, Foster said, "With ACRC being 12 miles down the road, obviously that's the only track that's impacted by this."
"Everybody has a different idea of where this money goes, and that's a problem," Foster added.
Bugdon concluded: "I believe the time has come to stand up for southern New Jersey and the live racing that is so beloved in this area of the state as well."
The committee released the bill by a vote of 4-1. Two senators said they would reserve their right to vote differently on the Senate floor, where the bill now heads.
Contact Juliet Fletcher: