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home : news : news   April 29, 2016

11/21/2012 5:36:00 AM
Horsemen banking on slot machines to stay afloat


Bordo Bay, a 3-year-old Standard Bred, sticks out his tongue as Leon Walker, a 25-year veteran of the horse racing industry, washes him after a workout Tuesday in rural Ottawa. Area breeders say the rise of riverboats and land-based casinos in Illinois have cut into their earnings at a time when expenses have risen sharply.NewsTribune photo/Anthony Souffle
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Bordo Bay, a 3-year-old Standard Bred, sticks out his tongue as Leon Walker, a 25-year veteran of the horse racing industry, washes him after a workout Tuesday in rural Ottawa. Area breeders say the rise of riverboats and land-based casinos in Illinois have cut into their earnings at a time when expenses have risen sharply.

NewsTribune photo/Anthony Souffle
Tom Collins
NewsTribune Senior Reporter



Feel like feeding the slot machines the next time you go to the horse track?
Lawmakers voted to make that an option, but Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed it. Lawmakers might not have the votes to override him when they convene next week.
And local horse breeders their future hinges on getting the slot into the tracks.
Area breeders say the rise of riverboats and land-based casinos in Illinois have cut into their earnings at a time when expenses have risen sharply. Without revenue from slots, they’ll have to consider tough options, including moving to states that do allow it.
“It’s getting to the point where we’re looking for help to save the industry,” said Randy Tuftie of rural Utica, who has 40 years in the horse business. “All our operating expenses have increased and the purse money that we race for has declined.
“I was raised here in La Salle County, lived here all my life, so I don’t want to go anywhere.”
Leon Walker of rural Ottawa, a 25-year horse veteran, said the Illinois horse industry is at a critical point.
“We definitely need relief,” he said. And without that relief, “The industry here in Illinois is going to die.”
They and others now are watching Senate Bill 1849. A key provision would allow slot machines at horse tracks, allowed in at least five rival states including Indiana.
The bill was filed Feb. 9, 2011, by Sen. Terry Link (D-Lincolnshire) and passed the Senate the following April. SB 1849 was later amended to expand gaming and then passed the House 69-47 in May; state Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) and state Rep. Pam Roth (R-Morris) both voted yes. The Senate concurred 30-26 a week later, but state Sen. Rezin (R-Morris) opposed it.
Rezin said she’s reluctant to support gaming expansion.
“I have not supported the gaming bill in the past,” she said. While noting the sprawling bill includes many “good elements” including soil and water conservation, “At the end of the day, overall expansion is not something that I support.”
Quinn felt so, too. He vetoed it on Aug. 28, saying the bill fell short of ethical standards needed for expanded gambling — the bill does not, for example, ban campaign contributions from gaming operators — and did not set aside enough revenue for education.
“The most glaring deficiency of SB 1849 is the absence of strict ethical standards and comprehensive regulatory oversight,” he said. “Illinois should never settle for a gaming bill that includes loopholes for mobsters.”
Mautino said he supports an override — he traditionally supports the horse industry — but isn’t sure there are sufficient votes for the bill to even be called in the upcoming veto session. Bill sponsor Link, he said, “would not call a bill and watch it fail.”
“One of the big problems we’re having is there are only about 2,000 horses that are Illinois-bred and running,” he said. “The purses and racing structure in Indiana and other states are already drawing races away from us. This legislation is a way to get purses to a competitive level and keep quality racing here, and they feel this is the best way to rebuild horse racing here.”
Mautino noted the bill also includes ancillary provisions pertaining to land use in downstate Illinois, and he’d hate to see those measures thrown out if Quinn’s total veto isn’t addressed.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture estimates the horse industry in Illinois supports approximately 37,000 agribusiness jobs here. Many of those jobs have migrated to eastern states where expanded gaming has already been enacted.
Joe Cassano, who races nine horses at tracks in suburban Maywood and Crete, said he and his colleagues have pressed for legislation in the past and walked away empty-handed. They’ve watched in dismay as the top drivers and trainers have fled for New York and New Jersey in search of a living wage. The loss of top talent has resulted in diminished quality of racing.
“We still have a few good drivers, as well as young up-and-comers, but the quality of racing has lessened because so many experienced drivers and trainers have gone east for more money,” he said. “It’s not like we want the slots to get ahead. We just want the slots to stay even with everybody else.”
While purses are not at an all-time low, he said, the revenues are not sufficient to cover mounting costs such as veterinary care and still pay the bills at home.
“We’re in a business that, if we don’t get help from the Legislature, we’re not going to be able to continue in Illinois — it’s that critical,” he said. “We just can’t compete, anymore.”

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. NewsTribune reporter Jeff Dankert contributed to this report.












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