Locally, the amount bet [on horse racing] last year at Capitol Teletrack in Springfield, one of two dozen off-track betting sites in Illinois, was less than half what was wagered at a Lucy’s Place gambling parlor with five video machines a few blocks away on Wabash Avenue. Racing at the state fair also has declined. In 2018, a quarter-million dollars was wagered during four days of harness racing at the fair. In 1995, $1.3 million was bet on 82 races run over six days.
Downward trends are statewide and national. Since 1990, when more than $1.25 billion was wagered on horses in Illinois, the amount bet on horses, or handle in racing’s parlance, has fallen to $573.5 million, including bets placed outside the state by gamblers who can watch races across the land via simulcast broadcasts. In 2018, just 11 percent of money wagered in Illinois on horses ran their races in the Land of Lincoln. The state is down to three tracks, two fewer than in 2015, when a pair of Chicago-area harness tracks shut down. That same year, an East Moline track that last held a live race in 1993 gave up after years of simulcasts, ending resurrection hopes.
“The horse racing industry in this state is about to fall and crumble and deteriorate and go away – that’s just how drastic it is,” state Department of Agriculture Director John Sullivan told state senators during a budget hearing last spring.
It’s an industry worth saving, Sullivan argued. Since 2000, the number of state-issued licenses for occupations ranging from grooms to owners has shrunk from 11,000 to 4,000, but still, Sullivan testified, horse racing generates $1 billion a year in economic activity, considering grooms, blacksmiths, feed stores, veterinarians and scores of other jobs.
“The jobs generated by this industry, they’re very real,” Sullivan told legislators. “Anything you can do to help them would be appreciated.”
Legislators and Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivered with an expansion of gambling that includes sports betting at tracks and the potential for racecourses to become full-fledged casinos. There’s a provision for a new standardbred track, despite closures in recent years. Fairmount Park in Collinsville could have as many as 900 video gambling machines and seats at blackjack tables and other table games. Arlington and Hawthorne Racecourse, both in the Chicago area, could each have as many as 1,200 spots for gamblers to make bets on machines, cards or other table games. By comparison, no existing casino has 1,100 video gambling terminals, according to the most recent report from the Illinois Gaming Board, and 317 table games operate in the state’s 10 casinos, most of which are operating fewer gambling machines than authorized. Video gambling has not previously been allowed at tracks, where millions of dollars in wagers are accepted on nothing but horse races.