With a red pen in hand, Chrissy Bialek flips through the program on opening weekend of the thoroughbred racing season at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero.
Her horseshoe-shaped ring catches the light from the televisions above the bar as their screens show clips from races across the country. Bialek, of Chicago, has been coming to Hawthorne for as long as she can remember.
“My dad would bring me out here when I was just in diapers,” said Bialek, who could spout off information on horses, trainers and jockeys by age 9. She started betting the day she turned 18.
For Bialek, horse racing isn’t about the money. It’s about the atmosphere, the people and the horses. But she has noticed the purses — the amounts awarded to the winner — are plummeting.
“Because of our low purses, we’re not attracting those champion horses,” Bialek said. “In Illinois, we’re really suffering.”
The numbers back her up.
An annual report by the Illinois Racing Board shows that in 1980 the total amount wagered on horses — known as the “handle” — was about $1.2 billion. By 2016, it had dropped to $571 million.
Maywood Park closed in 2015. Balmoral Park closed its race track and now operates as a show jumping venue. That leaves Arlington, Fairmount Park and Hawthorne to keep the industry alive in Illinois.
Other states allow “racinos” — race tracks with other forms of gambling, such as slot machines. In more than 10 states, including Indiana and Kentucky, track owners use that gaming revenue to boost horse-racing purses.
But Illinois bans that practice, and efforts to change that have failed. Track owners and members of the state racing board support the change, saying bigger purses will bring in better horses and bigger crowds. Without it, they fear the industry will continue to decline.
Domenic DiCera, executive director of the Illinois Racing Board, said low purses give horse owners little incentive to stay here. Bialek said top-level trainers and jockeys she’s watched in Florida and Kentucky are bringing their horses to race in Indiana — not Illinois.
Hawthorne President Tim Carey, whose family has owned and operated the track since 1909, looks at horse racing as more than just a way to win a few bucks. “The key to horse racing is that it’s a sport; we don’t view ourselves as gaming,” he said.
While racing fans love the sport just as much as Carey, the track owner wants to combine the two forms of betting at his track to save it. Carey said purses at Hawthorne have dropped dramatically, with last year’s live thoroughbred races averaging a daily purse of about $110,000 — barely half of what it was a decade earlier.
“We are an industry that could be thriving if the legislature would move,” he said.
According to Jeffrey Brincat, chairman of the Illinois Racing Board, the lack of gaming has Illinois tracks caught in a vicious cycle. Tracks that bring in more money from gaming offer higher prizes. With more money on the line, breeders, racers and jockeys bring better horses there instead of Illinois. Tracks with more champion horses draw more bettors, allowing those tracks raise their purses even more. Illinois then loses bettors who head to Indiana or other states; tracks make less money, and their purses drop even lower.
“It’s really a question not of ‘if’ the horse racing industry will fail,” Brincat said, “but of how much pain these horse owners and track owners can tolerate.”
In May, a bill to allow electronic gaming at race tracks narrowly passed the Illinois Senate. The bill, SB7, now awaits a vote in the House. But this isn’t the first time a gaming bill has gotten this far only to fail.
Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, said he has introduced a similar bill every year for 15 years. Twice, Link said, the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn.
Link said he’ll keep pushing for gaming because he thinks it’s the boost the industry needs.
“Right now I feel it’s on life support,” Link said. “It’s crucial that we do something to help it.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner said in an email that the horse racing industry is an important part of the state’s economy.
“We need to keep an open mind about all available options to bolster the industry so that we’re not losing it, and the jobs it provides, to neighboring states,” Rauner said.
In October, the racing board redistributed $500,000 in excess funds to the tracks to help raise purses, but board members said it won’t solve long-term issues. The racing board also renewed licenses for Hawthorne, Fairmont and Arlington, awarding each their racing schedule through the 2018 season. Beyond that, their future is uncertain.