Ann Sanner

COLUMBUS: A judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit from an anti-gambling policy group challenging the addition of slot-like machines to the state’s seven horse tracks, along with the legality of other changes to Ohio’s gaming rules.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Timothy S. Horton ruled the Ohio Roundtable did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit against Gov. John Kasich and others. He said through their pleadings and arguments that the group’s members offered “little more than bare assertions of harm or injury.”

The gambling opponents filed the lawsuit in October against Kasich, the Ohio tax commissioner, the Ohio Lottery Commission, the Ohio Casino Control Commission and associated members of the commissions.

Among the 17 claims in the suit, the group argued that allowing video lottery terminals at Ohio’s seven horse tracks violated the state’s constitution.

The dismissal comes as Scioto Downs in Columbus is scheduled to open Friday with 1,800 VLT machines. The so-called racino, operated by Chester, W.Va.-based MTR Gaming Group Inc., is the first to be licensed in the state as a video lottery operator.

Horton’s decision can be appealed.

Other track owners had been waiting to learn the outcome of the court case, not wanting to take the risk of investing millions only to have a court ruling go against them.

There are two tracks in Northeast Ohio, and that number is expected to grow by one. Northfield Park, a harness track, is in Northfield in northern Summit County, and Thistledown, a thoroughbred track, is in suburban Cleveland. Meanwhile, Penn National Gaming Inc. has announced plans to relocate the Beulah Park thoroughbred track in suburban Columbus to suburban Youngstown.

Last month, Northfield Park owner Brock Milstein and Hard Rock International announced a deal to build a Hard Rock-branded gaming facility at the harness track in Northfield. The $275 million project calls for a video slots parlor, Hard Rock Cafe, premium steakhouse, music venue, conference area and buffet.

Moving forward

Northfield Park and Hard Rock have been developing the racino plans since their deal was announced and while the lawsuit was going on, Milstein said Wednesday. He said both companies remain committed to the project and would like to open as soon as possible.

He declined to comment on when that might be or the lawsuit itself, however.

“We want to take some time to review the court ruling and re-evaluate where we are today in light of what, for the industry, is good news,” he said.

Rock Gaming, which has an interest in Thistledown and owns the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland, declined to comment on the ruling. The company has been investigating relocating the track to the Akron area.

David Zanotti, president of the Ohio Roundtable, questioned the judge’s ruling. He said the group was reviewing its legal options.

“The constitution has been trashed, and the people haven’t been harmed?” Zanotti said. “If the people don’t have standing to defend their constitution, who does?”

Rob Walgate, the lead plaintiff in the case, said the anti-gambling policy group was confident it had a winning case.

“The problem is we never had the opportunity to be heard,” Walgate told reporters at an afternoon news conference in Columbus. “We didn’t have the ability to lay out the case.”

Walgate said the group doesn’t plan to take any legal action before Friday to prevent the Columbus racino from opening.

Ohio voters in 2009 approved casino gambling at four sites in the state with backers promising new jobs and opponents warning about more gambling addicts. Casinos recently opened in Cleveland and Toledo, and facilities in Cincinnati and Columbus are opening later this year.

Walgate said putting slots at racetracks is akin to creating nonvoter-approved casinos in the state.

“When people believed that in 2009 they were authorizing four casinos in four separate cities, they were giving the gambling interests control of the legislature and opening up the wild, wild West,” he said.

Among other issues, the group had challenged an agreement Kasich made with gaming companies.

Relocating racetracks

As a part of a memorandum of understanding with Kasich, Ohio stands to pocket nearly $150 million from a gambling company building two casinos so that it can move its two horse racing tracks to other areas within the state and reduce the competition for drawing gamblers to its casinos in Columbus and Toledo.

Penn National Gaming Inc. plans to move Beulah Park to a new track near the Ohio Turnpike in Mahoning County. It also wants to close Raceway Park in Toledo and relocate to a new track in Dayton on the site of a shuttered auto plant.

Penn National, based in Wyomissing, Pa., called the lawsuit’s dismissal a significant step forward for its plan to relocate the racetracks.

“We’re hopeful that the state will now move quickly to formalize the process that will allow us to apply to relocate our racetracks and get these two significant economic development projects under way,” the statement said.

The State Racing Commission has to adopt rules setting fees for the relocation of a racetrack, and the panel would have to approve Penn’s application to transfer the tracks.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols called the ruling “good news,” and said it brings clarity for the industry.

Beacon Journal staff writer Rick Armon contributed to this report.