Casino Expansion Would be Boon to Horse Racing

The giant casino bill which is stuck in a legislative logjam in Illinois would create a mega-casino for Chicago. It would create four other new casinos, in southern Cook County, Lake County, Rockford, and Danville. And it would add thousands of gaming positions to existing gambling halls across the state.

Oh, and it would put slots in race tracks too.

That’s right. Racetracks. Almost lost in the Sturm and Drang over the casino portions of the gambling bill are the bailout provisions for the Illinois horse racing industry, an industry knocked on its heels by casinos and lotteries and other tracks in other states which got slot machines years ago.

"We need this bill," said Tim Carey, President of Hawthorn Race Course. "We’ve been trying to get this bill passed for over 12 years."

But as proponents and opponents wrangle over the casino portions of the gaming bill, with the very real possibility of a veto by Gov. Pat Quinn, horse tracks could be the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

The largest issue raised by opponents is a provision for a new Chicago gaming board, which would have oversight responsibility for Chicago’s new uber-casino. Officials of the existing Illinois Gaming Board argue the door would be left open for untold nefarious scenarios, and the possible entrance of organized crime into an industry which so far, they have managed to keep clean.

Quinn has telegraphed a veto if those portions of the bill aren't cleaned up. But sponsors say a so-called "trailer bill" would address their concerns. Just sign the legislation, they say, and the rest can be tidied up with follow-up language.

For four months, that’s the way the argument has stood. And the horse tracks have been forced to watch it all from the sidelines, knowing full well that the slots they say they need for their survival hang in the balance.

"We'll address those issues that the gaming board has. We'll address the issues that the governor has in the trailer bill," Carey said. "If the governor vetoes any portion of this bill, or vetoes the whole bill, and we have to go down to Springfield and pass his changes or override his changes, I just don’t think we have the votes to do that right now."

It is indeed an ailing industry. The wagering handle at Illinois tracks has shrunk from more than $1.2 billion in 1990, to just over $148 million last year; a drop of 88 percent.

Carey does not join others in his industry predicting padlocks on the doors. But he does say the addition of slots could mean a vital shot in the arm, and thousands of jobs.

"It’s called the purse structure,' he says. "And without a large purse structure, we don’t have the purses to pay, to get other horses to come in here."

Add slots, he says, and it could mean an almost overnight turnaround.

“Oh, I think we’re looking at 4 to 5 thousand people a day coming into this race track that are not here right now.”

While Quinn has made his feelings known about the casino provisions of the bill, he has had little criticism of the horse industry portions, save for a section which would add slots at the state fairgrounds in Springfield.

"Harness racing has been at the fair for a long time," Quinn told the Chicago Tribune last month. “But when you put in slot machines, that’s a totally different situation."

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