A great idea whose time never came
I never got too chummy with Randall Terry, even though he signed my paycheck for about eight years. Not to disparage the dead, but people skills were never his strong suit, which goes a long way toward explaining why we are talking about a lottery these days instead of pari-mutuel wagering as a means of raising revenue for the state.
To backtrack, Randall was the longtime publisher of the High Point Enterprise. While he never went out of his way to fraternize with employees (maybe it was just me) and was a lifelong bachelor, he seemed to have a genuine affinity for animals. Shortly before his death he commissioned an artist ‘— $50,000 was the figure that circulated around the offices of the Enterprise ‘— to paint a portrait of his five golden retrievers. I also heard that when he died last year he left a six-figure sum to a vet to care for his beloved dogs.
But that was merely a drop in the bucket compared to the bundle he spent on his other four-legged passion, the ponies. Not betting, mind you, but trying to get a horse (and dog) racing facility built in the Triad. Again it was office scuttlebutt, but the coffee pot conversation had it that he dropped around $5 million of his own money in pursuit of that dream.
For all his eccentricities, Randall was a brilliant man. As far as I know, he came up with this dream on his own, hired the consultants and accountants to run the numbers and make sure they were valid, did the due diligence legally, schmoozed and arm-twisted the politicos and criss-crossed the state tirelessly trying to drum up support for his idea. And he did win quite a few supporters over the years, but never quite enough to get it pushed through the legislature.
I first became aware of his plan around 1985 or ’86, while editing a small Triad weekly called The Sports Page. At first I was skeptical (because I’m skeptical of everything) but the more I delved into it the more I came to realize that it could actually work. Randall had researched it from every conceivable economic, sociological, historical and ethical angle. The figure he kept coming back to was $400 million in annual economic impact for the state, which, ironically, is roughly the figure Gov. Easley tells us a lottery would generate.
Briefly (and from memory), here’s how Randall Terry’s plan would’ve worked: Private money builds a first-class, year-round racing facility somewhere in central North Carolina. One component is an indoor dog-racing track, so that it could operate through the winter. The track itself creates hundreds of full- and part-time jobs, from ticket-takers to groomers. It also boosts the economy by bringing in tourists, who spend money both at the track and at restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc.
In turn, a track will automatically bring horse breeders to the area, which increases land values and becomes an economic generator unto itself. Thoroughbred owners and their stables are typically the domain of the filthy rich, and since money follows money, it only makes sense that turning some of our abundant rural areas into some Calumet Farms-type stables is good for the economy.
Moreover, since horses have to eat, our declining agricultural base would be given a new lease on life. Many farmers who are going under trying to survive on tobacco (and government subsidies) would be able to diversify into wheat, barley, oats, etc. The breeders would create a whole new market for the farmers. Our climate is ideal for both breeding horses and raising the crops needed to feed them.
All of this turns, however, on one key element ‘— betting. None of this flies without money changing hands, not only at the track but off-track, as well. And therein lies the rub. The state would have to pass a bill legalizing pari-mutuel wagering, which would pave the way for the rest of the dominoes to fall.
I recall a Senator Kenneth Royal introducing the bill to legalize wagering, and there may have been several others between the late ’80s and mid ’90s, but I don’t think any of them ever made it out of committee. Most legislators, I suppose, did not want it to come to a vote on the floor, so they made sure it got killed in committee.
So it died a slow and agonizing death. Part of the reason may have been Randall’s lack of charisma, but another part had to do with the organizational skills of the Christian right, who assured us that we would all be paying extortion money to the Mafia the moment pari-mutuel wagering were allowed.
But it could have worked, it really could’ve. We’ll never know.
Ogi can be reached at email@example.com and heard each Tuesday at 9:35 a.m. on WGOS 1070 AM.