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An attempt to save a dying industry

Thursday, Jul 11, 2019

* Bruce Rushton

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.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Annonin' - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 10:16 am:

    As folks who enjoy making a bet now and then we hopeful that this not too late. Trainers and drivers who went east for better purses still have farms here and a likely to return if purses get better. Let’s hope the gaming board moves promptly.

  2. - Give Me A Break - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 10:17 am:

    Not sure anything will really “save” this industry. We will never go back to the days of the 80s when federal tax law allowed right offs of breeding, boarding and training fees which brought deep pocket owners to the sport and drove up stud fees and yearling sales to record levels.

    Couple that with an industry that no longer is 1-3 generations removed from having agriculture roots and has to fight for every entertainment dollar consumers spend, you have an industry that is more niche or novelty than mainstream.

    Sure I would love to go back to the days of the “Hambo” being in Illinois and the Arlington Million being a glamour event and Grand Circuit horses showing up during the fair and setting world records, but those days are not coming back.

  3. - apples and oranges - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 10:23 am:

    Good idea on them to combine the following at racetracks to capture a larger audience:

    ‘Gambling’ (horse racing, video poker, table games, sports book) takes skill, analysis/math, and more investment of time - so currently less players.

    ‘Gaming’ (video gaming machines, slot machines, lottery tickets) takes no time and no skill - so currently more players.

  4. - Downstate - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 10:29 am:

    “an industry that no longer is 1-3 generations removed”…

    Great point. My parents took me to the track at least 6 times per year. My son has been there only once every 10 years.

    The industry desperately needs a “Top Golf” type solution to grab the next generation of consumers.

  5. - OneMan - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 10:53 am:

    If you combine all the gaming types at the track what is the risk that horse racing is going to end up an after thought and still end up going away, just taking a bit longer?

  6. - TrumpsSmallHands - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 10:58 am:

    Don’t forget about the impact of the national stories on horse racing, like the Santa Anita track where over 60 horses have died since 2018.

    That kind of thing really pushes people away from the “sport”, and honestly if horses can’t be raced without inflicting harm then maybe we shouldn’t do it.

  7. - Honeybear - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 11:06 am:

    My Rep. Katie Stuart has been working like CRAZY on Fairmont. It’s amazing how many hours she’s put into it. She is always posting from events at the track. Stuart is pulling out all the stops for this economic engine in her district.
    If other reps worked as hard as she, Illinois would be in a lot better shape.

  8. - horseplayer - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 11:07 am:

    the quality of horse racing in Illinois is also a huge issue for the tracks. while it may be good for Illinois breeders that there are so many “state bred” races (with inflated purses), those who truly enjoy the sport are not very interested in these low quality events. the “day in day out” racing is very subpar. subsidizing breeders is a double-edged sword.

  9. - Lester Holt’s Mustache - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 11:22 am:

    ==the quality of horse racing in Illinois is also a huge issue for the tracks. ==

    Don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve been told be two different horse breeders that purses in Illinois are far lower than they are in other states. It doesn’t make financial sense to race their horses here. One in Tennessee told me it’s more profitable for him to travel all the way to NJ, even though Illinois is much closer

  10. - Mr. Chairman - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 11:27 am:

    How about slot machines at Sears stores? Bring back Sears. They employed a lot of people.

    Horse racing cannot support itself because nobody cares. Stop propping it up. Move on.

  11. - Fav human - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 11:35 am:

    I’m so surprised. Only so many gambling dollars to go around.

    Will this really save the industry? Or just the venues and their owners??

  12. - horseplayer - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 11:38 am:

    horse racing is alive and well in Kentucky. of course, they don’t have “state bred” races.

  13. - Ted Slowik - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 11:40 am:

    I recently met with some horsemen and women in Will County and wrote about this topic.

  14. - Amalia - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 12:04 pm:

    the industry is suffering everywhere because horses are dying and the average person wonders what is up. Rule changes on meds and time near racing and whip usage are some things worth a look. (are there whip misuse penalties for jockeys?) the crisis at Santa Anita is sobering. it’s not just about the surface quality. actually think that there should be a conversation nationally and standards.

  15. - Donnie Elgin - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 12:22 pm:

    Once Arlington gets the 1,200 “gaming” positions it will basically be a “racino” (casino with racing). Lots of card/table game players will cross over and play the ponies as well. The grounds and building of AP are beautifully kept, nearby alternatives Elgin/Aurora are dumps.

  16. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 12:47 pm:

    ==Don’t forget about the impact of the national stories on horse racing, like the Santa Anita track where over 60 horses have died since 2018.==
    It’s not only horses dying, jockeys get injured too, often badly. When your horse falls in front of a dozen other horses charging at you, that doesn’t end well.

  17. - @misterjayem - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 12:49 pm:

    Last year, an average of nearly 10 racehorses a week died at U.S. tracks.

    Horse racing needs to address that staggering fatality rate if it wants to draw anyone but the industry’s most grizzled fans to its tracks.

    Until the horse racing industry cleans up its act, I won’t shed a tear for its passing.

    – MrJM

  18. - I Miss Bentohs - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 1:26 pm:

    My hope is that all horse racing and dog racing ends soon. My belief is that government money should not be subsidizing it.

  19. - Practical Politics - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 2:15 pm:

    The declining horse racing industry has been neglected by the Illinois legislature for decades. One wonders if the legislation passed during the recent session is too little, too late. Other states addressed these concerns for their horse tracks years ago.

  20. - Colinsville Kevin - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 2:17 pm:

    Horses occasionally break down. Those of us that love horse racing have learned to accept that. For you sour grapers who can’t, you don’t have to attend.

  21. - Honeybear - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 2:21 pm:

    My belief is that government money should not be subsidizing it.

    Then you must also be against EDGE and Enterprise Zones right?

  22. - Practical Politics - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 2:27 pm:


    The race track with horses dying due to injuries is based in Southern California, not Illinois.

  23. - State of DenIL - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 2:59 pm:

    Horse racing is a great sport. Honeybear is on the money with our wonderful state Rep who has stood up for it.

    Why do we have all these video machines at every gas station in the land?

  24. - @misterjayem - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 3:33 pm:

    “The race track with horses dying due to injuries is based in Southern California, not Illinois.”

    Of the 25 racetracks that share their casualty counts with the public, only one was more deadly last year than Churchill Downs.

    And despite its recent rash of gloomy headlines, it wasn’t Santa Anita.

    Only Illinois’ Hawthorne Race Course lost horses at a faster pace than Churchill Downs did in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database.

    – MrJM

  25. - DuPage Dave - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 6:46 pm:

    It’s been 100 years since people in America routinely used horses for transportation or had any relationship with horses. Young people could not care less about horse racing.

    Same thing with baseball. It’s just dying a bit more slowly.

  26. - mana - Thursday, Jul 11, 19 @ 7:25 pm:

    All of these gambling machines cause gambling addicts. Why do they need that many gambling machines? I feel there should be another way to help the race horse industry.

  27. - Question More - Friday, Jul 12, 19 @ 4:08 am:

    Lottery is being pushed the way of horse racing by
    its current English owned manager.

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