Key Massachusetts state lawmakers signaled yesterday that they intend to rein in the Massachusetts Lottery's plans to launch a virtual horse-racing game on Keno-style monitors later this year.
At a State House hearing, the lawmakers questioned the lottery's legal authority to launch the game and whether the game should be allowed to proceed because of the potential impact on the state's struggling horse-racing industry.
''You've overextended your authority to roll out this game," said Representative Vincent A. Pedone of Worcester, the House chairman of the Legislature's Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.
Senator William W. Morrissey of Quincy, the Senate chairman of the committee, said he wanted to talk the issue over with other lawmakers before taking action. But he said his concern went beyond the legal questions. ''Is it the right thing to do?" he asked.
The lottery's executive director, Joseph Sullivan, insisted repeatedly during the hearing that the proposed horse-racing game, aside from the visual presentation, would be no different from the existing Keno game.
''This game is animation. This game is a presentation of 12 numbers and you pick three," Sullivan said. ''Skill is not a factor. It's truly a lottery game."
Sullivan said the lottery has not exceeded its statutory authority with the new game. He said his job is to feature games that will boost revenue for cities and towns and estimated the game would raise $150 million in its first year.
''Our focus is to grow revenues for cities and towns," he said. ''That's what we're doing and I won't be an apologist about it."
Lottery officials say they intend to install video monitors dedicated exclusively to the new game in bars and restaurants across the state. They are forecasting that a race might be held every 15 minutes, featuring an announcer who calls a race between 12 animated horses all identified by numbers. The minimum bet is expected to be $1 or $2, and players will be able to pick horses to win, place, or show, as well as other combinations.
Morrissey and Pedone said they viewed the game as an expansion into video gaming and a form of off-track betting. They said the game would target a younger audience, primarily the video game generation, and that it would draw casual bettors away from the state's four racetracks, which feature live horse racing and simulcast races from across the country.
Sullivan said the new horse-racing game would complement the state's four horse and dog tracks and boost their revenues. The four tracks currently receive nearly $740,000 a year in lottery commissions for offering Keno and other lottery games. Sullivan said that total would rise with the introduction of the new game. He acknowledged that the lottery had conducted no studies to determine the proposed game's impact on the horse-racing industry in the state.
Albert Balestra, vice president of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, said the horse-racing game would be a direct attack on the state's thoroughbred racing industry. He released a study indicating the industry has a $314 million economic impact in Massachusetts.
Balestra urged the lottery to work with the horse-racing industry and suggested the lottery carry live or simulcast races on its video monitors, instead of virtual horse races. Sullivan said the lottery currently lacks the capability to carry a simulcast race on its video monitor system, but he promised to look into how much it would cost.
Morrissey asked Sullivan what type of new games he would fall back on if the Legislature barred the agency from pursuing the horse-racing game.
Sullivan said lottery officials were always thinking about future games but added: ''There's nothing else in the pipeline right now."