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House could be placing a bad bet on horse racing

May 18, 2017

Yesterday, a graduate student came to visit me who had never really seen Detroit before. So, I gave her a little mini-tour of the booming downtown and midtown areas.

When we swooped down the Lodge Freeway towards the river, we passed a building that was where they made Wonder Bread years ago, and I still remember smelling the bread baking when I was on my way to Tiger Stadium for a baseball game.

Tiger Stadium is gone now, and the Wonder Bread plant is now a part of the glitzy Motor City casino. I told my friend “that’s a place where the poor people of Detroit send their money to rich people in New Jersey.”

That may not be geographically accurate. But otherwise, it is essentially true. Now, it is easy for me to be high-minded about gambling, because it has zero appeal for me, and never did.

However, there are lots of people who have no power to resist. I once saw a man at the Traverse City casino sitting like a zombie at a slot machine, both smoking and wearing an oxygen tank, mechanically pulling the lever for hours, possibly till his last dollar was gone.

He had every legal right to do this, but it still gave me the creeps.

And the Michigan legislature may be about to do something even creepier. The state house of representatives may pass a bill today that would allow people to place bets on horse races over the phone or over the internet. I wasn’t aware we were short of ways for people to irresponsibly throw their money away.

I do know this is being billed as necessary to save the racetracks. I doubt that. What I do know is that State Representative Dan Lauwers, a Republican from the Port Huron area, wins this week’s prize for distorting the English language. Lauwers, the smartphone gambling bill’s main sponsor, told the Gongwer News Service that this was only a “technical change” and that it was not an expansion of gambling because this was the same thing someone could do at the track.

Under that logic, I could take a flask of bourbon to his church this Sunday and drink during services, since after all, that would be the same thing I could have been doing at Joe’s Bar. Now there is something inspiring and sporting about going to a race track, putting a Hamilton down on Flea Biscuit, and then watching him run with a pack of beautiful animals.

Furtively betting your money though a phone app while in the restroom at the office has nothing to do with a love of racing and everything to do with enabling problem gamblers. I hope some combination of liberals and Christian conservatives team up to beat this bill before it becomes law.

Ironically, the casinos just might be the good guys here; they are against this too.

That’s because they fear it might hurt their revenues, but no matter; politics makes strange bedfellows. If this does become law, I can’t wait for the day little Bobby and Susie get hold of Daddy’s cell phone and decide to bet on any horse that reminds them of Seabiscuit.

Race tracks may survive, but common sense really does seem to be an endangered thing.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.