Horse gambling beats long odds; passes South Carolina House

Horse gambling passes South Carolina House
Horse gambling passes South Carolina House
Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 9:30 PM EDT
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(AP) - It seemed like quite the longshot when this year started — a bill to expand gambling in conservative South Carolina sponsored by a Democrat passing the House where Republicans hold a super majority.

But Rep. Russell Ott managed to cobble together a rare type of bipartisan alliance on a bill that would allow betting on horse races on a smartphone app.

Wednesday’s 56-46 vote was eye-opening in a state long opposed to gambling. Twenty-three years ago South Carolina shut down a nearly $3 billion video poker industry cobbled together through court rulings instead of figuring out a way to fully regulate it.

Since then, the state allowed a lottery and has done some minor expanding of church raffles and bingo, but otherwise has refused to join the gambling boom in other places.

And Ott’s bill still has long odds. It heads to the Senate, where a similar bill has been sitting on the floor since February, And if the Senate passed it, Gov. Henry McMaster campaigned against expanding any gambling in South Carolina in 2022 after his Democratic opponent made legalizing sports betting a key plank of his campaign.

McMaster’s chief of staff had a one-word response on Twitter to the bill’s passage in the House: “nope.”

“It was a longshot for sure,” Ott said Thursday.

Forty to 50 years ago, during the heyday of the horse racing industry, South Carolina was known as a great place to train a horse or send it for the winter.

“I can remember as a child driving across the county and seeing pasture after pasture that was filled with horses,” said Ott, who represents rural areas south of Columbia.

Up to three online companies could offer betting apps in South Carolina, under the bill. Bettors would have to already have money in an account.

The state would get a minimum of 10% of the revenue from the betting, but an appointed commission envisioned in the bill could negotiate more. Much of the money would go back to grants to encourage more horses to train in South Carolina and expand the equine industry, Ott said.

The wagering could earn the state from $385,000 to nearly $1.9 million a year, according to economists who forecast the state budget.

The 56 votes in the House for the bill were split between Democrats and Republicans. Nearly every vote against it came from Republicans, including many of the House’s leadership.