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Would Slots Actually Be Good For Horse Racing?

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    After Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed a gambling expansion bill that would have allowed racetracks to install slot machines, the president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association had this to say:

    “We are hopeful that a similar bill can be brought to a vote as early as the November veto session with a sitting legislature that knows all of the issues related to this bill, and with tweaks to address the Governor's concerns, we believe that we will be able to give the Governor a gaming bill that he will sign, recognizing that this bill is necessary for the survival of the horse racing industry in Illinois,” Mike Campbell wrote in a press release.

    I understand how badly the racetracks want slot machines. But while slots may be the salvation of racetracks, they may not be the best thing for horse racing.

    Earlier this year, The New York Times ran an expose dealing with the dangerous financial incentives created by “racinos” -- racetracks where the installation of slot machines has brought in so much money that purses for claiming races far exceed the value of the horses. As a result, trainers are willing to risk cheap, sore horses for a shot at a big payday. In response to an increase in deaths at Aqueduct, which opened a casino last year, The New York Racing Association limited purses to double the claiming price of the horses. California changed the rule that says a claimed horse belongs to the new owner the moment the gate opens. Now, if a horse dies during the race, the claim is voided. This eliminates an incentive for trying to pawn off a lame horse on an unsuspecting owner.

    Now that horse racing’s days as a major sport are over, its future may be as a “studio sport,” in which only the top tier tracks continue operating, and beam their races to gamblers all over the country. That would eliminate the scruffy tracks and the cheapest claiming races, where the worst abuses take place. Most of the tracks allowed to install slots have been marginal operations that might not have survived otherwise: Charles Town Races in West Virginia, Delaware Downs, Hoosier Downs. Despite the infusion of cash, those are still bush league tracks.

    “Good horses, less racing…would probably be the best business model,” says Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

    In Chicago, that kind of shakeout would probably result in the closing of Hawthorne Race Course, the Cicero Avenue track that cards more low-level claiming races than its tonier competitor, Arlington Park. Ten years ago, Hawthorne’s next-door neighbor, Sportsman’s Park, closed after a failed attempt to become a combined auto racing/horse racing track. Hawthorne absorbed most of Sportsman’s racing dates. Presumably, Arlington would do the same to Hawthorne.

    From my experience of racinos, they do more for casino gambling than horse racing. When I visited Prairie Meadows in Des Moines, Iowa, I had to walk through acres of slot machines to find the racetrack. Horse racing was a floor show for the facility’s main business. Despite its pastoral name, Prairie Meadows was not a racetrack with a casino. It was a casino with a racetrack attached. 

    This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $2.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.