ITHA puts support behind racetrack gaming bill

ITHA makes case for gaming, protection of racing opportunities

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Jan. 25, 2017

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association Jan. 25 said it supports legislation that would in part authorize electronic gaming machines for the state’s racetracks, but the organization also said guarantees for live racing opportunities are critical.

The bill, discussed during a Senate Gaming Committee hearing, is another in a line of measures that have won support from the Illinois General Assembly but have been vetoed by the governor. It also calls for more full-scale casinos, including one in Chicago.

Democratic Sen. Terry Link, the primary sponsor, said preserving and growing horse racing and breeding in Illinois is a key part of the bill. A synopsis states the industry “is on the verge of extinction due to fully developed horseracing and gaming operations in other states.”

ITHA President Mike Campbell, one of several speakers before the committee who were identified as proponents of the bill, said that since he was elected to lead the organization eight years ago, membership has dropped from about 5,000 to 1,400. He cited competition from other states in which purses are supplemented by gaming revenue.

“The best of the best are leaving to go elsewhere,” Campbell said. “I can’t begin to tell you the number of breeders, owners and trainers leaving to go to other states. If there is opportunity in these outlier states, that’s where people need to go. These are real job losses.

“I’m glad you are listening to our story, and I’m glad there is sentiment to do something about it.”

Campbell said Arlington Park this year will offer about $130,000 a day in purses, and that Illinois racing needs at least $175,000 to be competitive with other states. Hawthorne Race Course at its 2016 fall meet paid a little more than $100,000 per program.

The exodus of horses and horsemen has led to fewer racing opportunities in Illinois. The legislation does call for a minimum number of races at Thoroughbred tracks in Chicagoland—1,950 per year—with provisions to increase the number of races based on growth in adjusted gross revenue from gaming devices. The floor for Fairmount Park, located downstate, is 700 races per year.

“It’s very important that we have protected racing opportunities,” Campbell said, noting that in other states horse racing has taken a back seat to casino operations. “I implore you not to let that happen. It is one thing getting revenue from slots but it is another thing keeping it. We’re going to have to rebuild this industry.”

The bill states that purses would receive 12.75% of adjusted gross gaming revenue up to and including $75 million; 20% for revenue of $75 million but not more than $100 million; 26.5% for revenue of $100 million but not more than $125 million; and 20.5% for anything in excess of $125 million a year.

Breed development would receive 10% to 12% of the purse share, which also would be used to fund health care services or workers’ compensation programs for industry workers; equine research; aftercare programs for retired racehorses; and ownership promotion as specifically designated by the representative horsemen’s group.

“We want to do as much as we can for backstretch workers,” Campbell said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Jack Kelly, who represented Hawthorne at the hearing, said the track would also like to have table games to be more competition but he didn’t speak in opposition to the legislation. Representatives of Arlington and Fairmount didn’t request to address the committee.

Tony Somone, Executive Director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, also spoke in favor of the bill. The Standardbred industry has gone from 260 nights of live racing in 2011 to 80 in 2017, and also lost two tracks: Balmoral Park and Maywood Park.

“We’re very happy about this discussion,” Simone said. “We need this desperately. But as much as we’re excited about the conversation, we want to ensure we have an opportunity to race somewhere. We need language that says we have someplace to race.”

The Illinois Casino Gaming Association went on the record as opposing the legislation on the grounds existing gaming facilities would be cannibalized, and the end result would be less revenue for the state.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Horse Board Jan. 24 authorized continuation of a statutory practice known as “recapture”—giving purse money to racetracks to compensate for reductions in live pari-mutuel handle due to full-card simulcasting. The ITHA, IHHA, and Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association had jointly asked the IRB to end recapture and said it has the right to do so under law.

Arlington and Hawthorne were authorized to recapture more than $7 million in Thoroughbred purse money.

(Hawthorne photo courtesy of the ITHA)