The president of Hawthorne Race Course took his plea for slot machines to the City Club of Chicago on Wednesday, telling the group’s luncheon that gambling is the best cure for Illinois’ economic problems.
“You have this very strange situation in Illinois right now,” said Tim Carey, who belongs to the fourth generation of a family that has owned the track since 1909. “You have record unemployment. Businesses fleeing and threatening to leave the state. And here we are, raising our hands, jumping up and down, fighting for the chance to invest millions of dollars in our state, create tens of thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue. And it won’t cost the taxpayers a dime. In fact, we’re ready to pay over a billion dollars in licensing fees for the chance to do this!”
It’s certainly the best cure for Hawthorne’s economic problems. Maybe the only cure. The Stickney race track used to attract crowds in the tens of thousands, despite its location alongside oil refineries and a sewage treatment plant. Now, the crowds are so threadbare that the track shut down half its grandstand. The same 500 guys have been coming there since 1983, and mortality is reducing that number annually. Actuarial tables tell me the horses may outnumber the gamblers by 2021.
If there are any horses left. In the last five years, the “handle,” or money bet on races in Illinois, has declined 40 percent. As a result, Hawthorne cut the purse of the Illinois Derby from $500,000 to $300,000, making it less attractive for horses trying to win a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Jockeys, trainers and owners have been defecting to racetracks in states where purses are supplemented by slot machine proceeds. Last fall, Hawthorne was so short of Thoroughbreds it canceled a day of racing. The track has also given up racing on Sundays, supposedly because it doesn’t want to compete with Bears games.
Carey assured City Club members that slot machines won’t attract a criminal element to horse racing.
“My family has owned this business for 100 years,” Carey said in his speech, which can be viewed here.
“Why in the world would I want the mob to be part of that -- or worse to be part of my competitors’ business? Let me be really clear: We want the best, most thorough regulation possible. Joliet has two casinos and since they opened in 1992, the population of that city has doubled and yet crime has gone down by almost 70 percent. Gamblers, it turns out, are not inherently criminal.”
Not that horse racing doesn’t have a criminal element. In 1978, Hawthorne Race Course burned to the ground. It was suspected that the arson was the work of a gang that had been running “ringers” -- substituting fast horses for horses with slow records -- and cashing bets on the results. They may have been trying to destroy foal papers that would have revealed their deception.
Carey believes that Quinn will sign the gambling bill.
“He’s an idealist and wants what’s best for the state,” he said. “But he’s also a pragmatist and knows how high the stakes are. He can create more jobs in Illinois by signing this bill than through all his other efforts combined.”
I wonder if Carey persuaded any City Club members to spend this afternoon at Hawthorne. The first race started at 1:40 p.m. If you ever need tips, ask Dino the parking lot attendant on the way in. He always has a couple good horses.