Phil Ruffin may be the winner by default for a license to operate historical horse racing (HHR) in Wichita after the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission (KRGC) changed its rules at the last moment to disqualify the only other bidder.
The rejected finalist for the license was Wichita developer George Laham, whose collaboration with Boyd Gaming Inc. motivated the rule change. Boyd already operates another nearby gaming facility in partnership with the state lottery. The KRGC felt that allowing the same company to operate two different types of gaming facilities in the same area would be contrary to the spirit of the Kansas Expanded Lottery Act.
Ruffin is a Las Vegas real-estate mogul who owns the Treasure Island and Circus Circus resorts. He is also the co-owner of Trump International Tower. His expansion into Kansas includes several downtown Wichita properties and the Wichita Greyhound Park.
Ruffin has been trying to build a casino in the area for some time. Ever since he bought the Greyhound Park in 2018, he’s been pushing to open a casino called Golden Circle at the same site.
The Golden Circle proposal has received letters of support from various local public figures, including Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, former Sedgwick County Sheriff Mike Hill, and former Wichita City Council member Sharon Fearey.
Despite that backing, Ruffin has faced challenges in bringing gambling to Wichita. Voters rejected previous attempts to introduce electronic gaming machines and a casino in the area. However, a 2022 law allowed licensing of HHR machines in Sedgwick County. These machines resemble slots but use anonymized horse racing results instead of random numbers to determine the outcome of bets.
Last-Minute Rules Change Results in Disqualification
Until last week, the competition for the license was a two-horse race. But according to the Wichita Eagle, things took an unexpected turn.
Laham and his team were scheduled to present their plan on Tuesday, July 11. Just before that, the KRGC called a closed-door session and drafted a new policy disqualifying Laham.
This was explicitly because of Laham’s deal with Boyd Gaming, which operates the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, 17 miles outside downtown Wichita.
The new policy states:
An individual or entity is prohibited from holding a license to manage or operate a historical horse racing facility within a gaming zone where the individual or entity is also a lottery gaming facility manager or racetrack gaming facility manager.
KRGC Chair David Moses said the policy was necessary to clarify the original purpose of the Kansas Expanded Lottery Act.
That 2007 act allowed racetracks to install electronic gaming machines while also creating permission for the state to contract with gaming companies to open four new gaming facilities. It established four designated gaming zones in the state, each to host exactly one of the gaming facilities.
It appears that lawmakers did not intend to allow individual companies like Boyd to circumvent that one-per-zone limit when adding HHR to the mix.
The commission consulted with state legislative leadership and the governor’s office before making this decision. T
Ruffin Not Guaranteed To Get License
While Ruffin is the only candidate, it does not mean he will get the license. However, it does mean that the KRGC’s options are now Ruffin’s casino or none at all.
Moses emphasized that the commission is not obligated to grant the license to the last-standing applicant.
He said KRGC will evaluate whether Ruffin meets the qualifications and assess other potential reasons for awarding or denying the license.
HHR Machines Resemble Slots but Operate Differently
HHR machines are similar to slots but differ in some ways. Rather than a random number generator used in slots, HHRs use race results from thousands of previous horse races.
HHRs mimic pari-mutuel betting, and players bet on three horses. The machines also display useful information, including past winners, handicaps, and winning percentages.
The law that legalized sports betting in Kansas in 2022 also granted KRGC the authority to issue a license for operating 1,000 HHR machines in Sedgwick County.
Kansas is one of six states that allow HHR machines. The other five are:
- New Hampshire
HHRs have been successful in those states. Kentucky generated $6.8 billion in the previous fiscal year, up 47.8% year-over-year. However, that number might drop with the legalization of sports betting in the state.
For 2022, HHRs generated over $4 billion in Virginia. The state is on pace to surpass that in 2023. Even in Wyoming, with a population of around half a million, HHRs handled nearly $1.3 billion in 2022.