South Carolina horse racing is a long-cherished and widespread sport in the state, but wagering on such races remains prohibited. A committee reviewing how to expand the economic benefits of horse racing believes allowing betting might be one solution to grow the industry.
The Equine Industry Support Measures Study Committee, formed through a bill that passed in April, tasks the group with reviewing how the state can grow the horse industry. The committee consists of two state House members and two senators, two people invested in the horse racing industry, plus a representative from the South Carolina Agriculture Department.
During the committee’s first meeting, the idea of allowing some sort of betting on horse races was brought up.
I’m interested in bringing horses here, tourists here, people here to participate and be entertained by the horse industry,” said Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D-Richland), one of the committee members. “And if having tracks where people can bet, … I want the money to be here,” he declared.
Twenty-seven states that have horse or dog racetracks allow pari-mutuel wagering. But of South Carolina’s four neighboring states — only one, Virginia — allows for racetrack betting.
Rep. Russell Ott (D-Calhoun) says the outcome of the committee’s work should be to develop and recommend ways the state can better the attractiveness of its horse racing industry to horsemen and fans.
“[Horse racing is] very important to South Carolina. I think it can be even more important,” Russell told The State.
While horse racing is a dying sport in much of the country, South Carolina wants to bet on the business to help its economy. State officials say horse racing already generates a nearly $2 billion economic impact and supports approximately 29,000 jobs. But with more favorable regulations, that could potentially double.
“We all know that equine is directly tied to the agriculture industry. But what we saw was the vast support that it gave to the vet services industries, the real estate industries, the hotel and restaurant industries, and general hospitality industries,” Clint Leach, assistant commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, said of a 2019 horse industry review conducted by the University of South Carolina.
Though the horse racing industry review committee might recommend that South Carolina legalize pari-mutuel or traditional sports betting on races, the path to legal wagering is long and complicated.
First, a bill seeking to allow such gambling would need to pass both chambers of the South Carolina Legislature with two-thirds majority support. The legislation would then need the signature of the governor.
Should that happen, the South Carolina Constitution requires that voters have the final say on any expansion of gambling. A ballot referendum would need a simple majority support to amend the constitution to allow horse racing betting.
Gambling has long been opposed in South Carolina. Aside from its lottery, the state bans commercial casinos, pari-mutuel wagering, racinos, online gaming, and sports betting.