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Analysis | The new pari-mutuel machines at Birmingham Race Course are legal, and there’s really no question about it

Josh Moon

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Because Bill Pryor said so. 

Since news broke on Tuesday that the Birmingham Race Course had installed 300-plus pari-mutuel gaming machines, there have been a lot of questions from people all around the state. Primarily, the question raised, with genuine curiosity, is this: Why are those games legal?

The answer: Because Bill Pryor and two other Alabama attorneys general, including the current one, have said so. 

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated — and a lot more sensible — than that. But at the end of the day, if you want to make sure you’re operating a legal business whenever a complicated matter of law raises the question, you turn to the Alabama AG’s office for guidance. 

The owners of both the Mobile Greyhound Park and the Birmingham Race Course have done so. 

Four times. 

But it was Pryor, during his time as Alabama’s AG in the early 2000s, who set the precedent. All subsequent letters merely asked the AG’s office to reaffirm that the historical pari-mutuel games are legal. 

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And truthfully, why wouldn’t they be legal? 

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The Alabama law that makes pari-mutuel wagering at greyhound tracks (and later, horse racing at the Birmingham Race Course) allowed for bettors to gamble on races at the track and also for the tracks “to receive broadcasts of races located outside of” the specific counties where the tracks were located and allowed “all forms of pari-mutuel wagering” on those broadcast races. 

The machines in question — the new historical pari-mutuel machines installed at the Birmingham Race Course — essentially broadcast races to bettors at the track. It’s just that these races have already been run. 

To play one of these machines, a player inserts money and receives information about a race — length, track conditions, weather, horse information. The player can pull up all the standard info that’s typically contained within a racing sheet, which gamblers use at tracks to make informed bets on each race. 

That part is key. 

Because also under Alabama law, the thing that makes pari-mutuel wagering legal is that Alabama’s Legislature has determined that it’s not simply a lottery, or a game of strictly chance. There is a level of skill required, and if a bettor has that skill, he or she won’t necessarily be taking as much of a risk. 

After the player selects which horses to bet on, the pari-mutuel machine plays out the race in digital form. After the win or loss, the player has the option to view the full race upon which the game was based, or to view the last four seconds of the race. 

The opinion from Pryor’s office from March 2001, written by Carol Jean Smith, the chief of the opinions division, essentially says that if the pari-mutuel machines simply broadcasts old races and requires all the same skill, they’re good.

“If a computerized machine that replays actual historical races requires a player to exercise a significant degree of skill to make a pari-mutuel wager on the outcome of the race, use of such machine is permissible in Mobile County …,” the opinion reads. 

Future opinions written by AGs Troy King and Marshall essentially echo that original opinion from Pryor and say the laws haven’t changed. 

So, there’s no reason these machines aren’t legal. All the same things are true. All the laws still stand. All the opinions are still valid. 

Of course, this is Alabama, and in Alabama the definitions of laws can change depending upon the amount and direction of money flowing to those who do the defining. Elected officials can, and have, made remarkable 180s when it was politically expedient or personally profitable to do so. 

It’s certainly conceivable that such a change could occur in this case. 

But if they do so, they won’t have a legal leg to stand on.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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