Illinois horse tracks push for slot machines

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COLLINSVILLE, Ill. — The promotions meant to drum up interest in horse racing at 90-year-old Fairmount Park among customers more comfortable staring at an iPhone than a tip sheet are creative and constant.

Horse Hooky is designed to lure those willing to skip out of work early each Tuesday to drink cheap draft beer and eat even cheaper hot dogs. Couch potatoes can rent six-person sofas in the grandstand. Saturday nights in the summer offer live bands — and more cheap beer.

Despite the party vibe, attendance continues to plummet at this southwestern Illinois horse track and the state’s four others. Purses are low, betting is down and horse owners are increasingly spurning Illinois tracks for venues in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and other nearby states that have paired some casinos with ponies, according to track owners.

“We’re the third biggest market in the country, and we’re getting beat out by Indiana, Iowa, Arkansas and Minnesota,” according to Glen Berman, executive director of the Chicago-based Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “It just shouldn’t be.”

The racing industry’s solution? Advocating for casino-like slot machines at the state’s tracks. Illinois horse tracks are hoping that state lawmakers grappling with a roughly $6 billion budget shortfall will agree to add slot machines in a move the racing industry says is vital for its survival.

Prospects for more gambling brightened last week amid news that Gov. Bruce Rauner, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and legislative leaders had met to discuss creating a Chicago casino along with gambling venues in the south Chicago suburbs and Lake, Vermillion and Winnebago counties. Lawmakers will hold a second hearing on gambling proposals Monday in Chicago.

Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, is working on legislation for a Chicago-owned casino that also would include slots at horse racing tracks, though he declined to outline specifics. He said he hopes to introduce it “very soon.”

Two existing legislative proposals, both from Rep. Bob Rita, a Blue Island Democrat, would create state-owned casinos in Chicago and other places — but exclude slots from Fairmount Park over objections from existing casinos and the city of East St. Louis.

East St. Louis, 8 miles east of the track, relies on tax revenue from the Casino Queen riverboat on the Mississippi River for nearly 40 percent of its budget.

“The gambling market in the St. Louis metro area is just about at the point of saturation,” said East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks Jr., citing a riverboat in Alton, four others in Missouri, the Casino Queen and the 2012 introduction of video gambling in Illinois.

Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn twice vetoed gambling expansion bills, largely over ethical concerns. Rauner has said he is open to a Chicago casino but “believes gambling decisions should be made in consultation with local communities,” spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in a statement.

Illinois horse tracks are hindered by a “recapture” law that requires them to contribute a portion of the purses to subsidize operations, Berman said. The legislative remedies put forward by Rita remove that requirement.

And monetarily, the average total payout this year in a state-bred thoroughbred race at Arlington Park in suburban Chicago was less than $25,000, Berman said, less than half the amount paid to winners in Iowa and at least $12,000 less than tracks in Indiana and Minnesota. At Fairmount Park, the track’s 54 racing days represents a 35 percent reduction from the yearly activity eight years earlier, and in 2000, when the track discontinued harness racing, there were more than 150 days on the schedule.

Casey Tanner, a 32-year-old security guard and pizza delivery driver from Maryville, agrees that slots could help turn around the state’s horse tracks. Nursing a bottle of beer early this spring while watching weekday races, he noted that video gambling terminals now proliferate in the area’s bars and gas stations.

“It would be packed in here every day,” he said. “You go to any bar in Collinsville, they have the machines. So why not have them here?”

ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, Associated Press

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