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New Hampshire residents will soon have a new in-person gambling option. On Wednesday, Gov. Chris Sununu has signed a bill to make historical horse racing (HHR) legal in the state.
HHR is something of a legal work-around for states that want to offer something similar to slots, but can’t or won’t legalize full casino gaming. In that regard, they’re similar to video lottery terminals, Class II electronic bingo machines and certain types of “skill” machines. All of those devices accept and pay out real money, and feature spinning reels of symbols that the player hopes will form winning patterns.
The difference between them is the underlying mathematics used to calculate prizes. That’s also what makes each of them distinct from slot machines in the eyes of the law.
Several other states have either authorized or tried to authorize HHR in the past. In almost all cases, it has proven legally controversial. New Hampshire may avoid the need to fight a legal challenge, however, because House Bill 626 had broad support in both the House and Senate from the start.
The bill had nine sponsors, comprising six House Representatives and three Senators. The effort was also bipartisan, with the breakdown among the sponsors being five Republicans to four Democrats. The lawmakers introduced the bill in January, after which it advanced to the Senate in April, and made it onto Gov. Sununu’s desk just a little over a month later.
This is the second time New Hampshire has expanded its gambling options in recent years. It legalized sports betting in 2019 and awarded a monopoly to DraftKings Sportsbook. HHR doesn’t follow quite the same model, and each location can select its vendor. However, at the moment only Exacta Systems has confirmed its participation in the market.
Exacta, and other vendors, will be able to install their systems at the state’s charitable gaming facilities. These are often described as casinos, but don’t offer the same range of games as commercial casinos in other states. In practical terms, they are more like poker rooms with a limited ability to offer table games, but no slots. The HHR machines will fill that void.
[ Correction: The original version of this article stated that Exacta had received a monopoly similar to DraftKings, but this is not the case. ]
What’s unusual is that HHR is normally a “slotslike” solution adopted by states with an active horse racing industry, which New Hampshire lacks. It had one in the past, but its last racetrack, Rockingham Park, held its final race in 2009. Although it carried on as a simulcasting venue for another seven years, it was finally demolished in 2017.
That said, the state’s regulatory body is still called the NH Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission. It still has rules for racing in place, making HHR an easier lift than conventional slots. The machines pay out based on results pulled from a database of old horse races, meaning existing rules for simulcast wagering can be extended to cover them.
In a press release, Exacta’s Chief Business Development Officer Patrick Neely said:
“Passage of this legislation was truly a group effort, and we were pleased to play a role in a broad coalition of New Hampshire charitable organizations and charitable gaming operators. We have no doubt that HHR will prove to be as successful in New Hampshire as it is in other jurisdictions, and that it will generate significant new tax revenue and financial support for countless New Hampshire charities.”
The idea of historical horse racing seems bizarre on the surface. If a race already happened, can’t the player simply Google the winner?
The answer is in fact that no, they can’t. The important thing to realize about HHR is that the player knows almost nothing about the race they’re betting on. There’s some statistical information available about previous performances by each horse and jockey. However, their names, that of the venue, and the date of the race are all redacted.
The race itself does feature on the screen while the reels spin, but only for a few seconds, in a small window in the corner. The player can also skip over reviewing the available stats and simply press a button to select their horses automatically. In other words, it’s possible for the player to ignore the race aspect of the game entirely, and simply play it as if it was a slot machine.
Unsurprisingly, this means opinions are split on HHR. Proponents consider it a valid and innovative extension of the horse racing industry. Critics consider the machines slots with a thin disguise, and an end run around gambling laws.
HHR machines first appeared in Arkansas in 2000. Oregon followed suit in 2003, but had to remove and relaunch them several times before finally settling the issue in 2013. This year, it became the first state to legalize online HHR.
Oregon’s experience has been typical for states attempting to introduce HHR. Wyoming and Kentucky also have the machines, but likewise had to go through a battle to get them to stick. Virginia joined the club more recently in 2018, and hasn’t yet faced such challenges, but Texas, Idaho and Nebraska have all seen their efforts fail.