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Slots at Illinois racetracks? Don't bet on it

The Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn are at an impasse over the future of gambling. One provision would allow horse tracks to operate slot machines. Opponents balk at any expansion of gaming. Backers say slots will save the horse-racing industry’s 40,000 employees.

SHARE Slots at Illinois racetracks? Don't bet on it
Slots at Illinois racetracks? Don't bet on it

WBEZ/Michael Puente

The Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn are at an impasse over the future of gambling. The governor hasn’t signed a new measure that would allow five new casinos, including one for Chicago.

That’s a prospect that could generate millions for debt-ridden Illinois.

One provision would allow horse tracks to operate slot machines. Opponents balk at any expansion of gaming. Backers say slots will save the horse-racing industry’s 40,000 employees; everyone from owners to jockeys.

Betters have been making their way to Balmoral Park Racetrack for more than 80 years for harness racing. On this night, a two-year-old filly named “Dune In Red” is making her racing debut.

“What do you say, Red! Come on, Red! Yes, we won,” said Duane Einhaus of Ottawa, Illinois, who owns the horse. “This is her first start and she won her first start.”

Einhaus and his family train and raise horses at a farm about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. He said he’s struggling because horseracing has to compete with so many other outlets for gambling. There are 10 casinos in the state and there are more in Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana. That’s why folks directly tied to the horseracing industry, like Einhaus, are betting so much on Gov. Pat Quinn. They want him to sign the bill that would allow slot machines at racetracks.

“It can only help. A lot of people would lose their job if the horse industry collapsed,” Einhaus said.

Debbie Allison, a Crete resident who’s trained racehorses for three decades, agrees.

“If we don’t get the slots, we’re really just done,” Allison said. “We are just really done.”

Allison’s convinced that slot machines would make the race tracks more viable and keep them open. She said her son moved to the East Coast to make his living in horseracing because the industry’s dying in Illinois. There are just too few visitors, and the purses for winning jockeys are small.

“I’ve been out here for a long, long time. I’ve lived out here, bought a farm out there just so I can race out here,” Allison said. “And now I’ve had to get out of the business. I had to sell my horses and sell my farm just like all of us have. And, it really does need to be passed or there’s not going to be horseracing in Illinois anymore.”

Horse tracks eek out whatever revenue they can. On this typical weeknight evening at Balmoral Park, about 800 people here but the attendance nearly doubles on weekends. Old timers sip on beer and wine that’s for sale. And there are private suites where visitors are buying dinner. All in all, not a bad way to spend a warm summer evening, but maybe it’s nice, but not great, for owners.

“Business has been down a little. It’s coming back this year actually. Things are looking up for us a little bit. The economy is coming back. Some of the people are coming back to the track,” said Balmoral’s general manager Mike Belmonte.

Belmonte explains the tracks already make money off of things other than the races and the booze. His track holds races three times a week, but the track’s actually open every day except Christmas. There’s an off-track betting parlor that allows for bets to be place for horse races across the country including the world famous Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

But even with this, Belmonte says the tracks just can’t attract enough gambling dollars.

“There’s other sources of gaming people now have. The boats in Illinois and right close here to Balmoral you’ve got Indiana casinos across the border,” Belmonte said. “So, there’s a lot more opportunity for gaming than there used to be and that’s definitely cut into our business.”

This is a sticking point.

Other states like Indiana allow slots at tracks. They’ve even got a term for them: they’re called racinos. And, they’ve lured not just betters away from Illinois, but everything tied to horse racing, from trainers to jockeys.

The industry here wants Illinois to catch up.

But while lawmakers are trying, Gov. Pat Quinn has said he’s against the idea of more casinos and he especially doesn’t like the idea of slots at racetracks. Quinn said he wants better safeguards, including a ban on legislators accepting the industry’s political contributions.

In just the past year alone, horseracing interests ponied up more than $500,000 in contributions, according to the University of Illinois’ Dr. Kent Redfield, a political science professor who has been tracking campaign contributions to Illinois lawmakers from gambling interest for more than a decade. Quinn wants the flow of cash to stop.

“I believe in a strong ethical framework of oversight and integrity. No campaign money from gambling interests. Those are things I’ve said over and over again and I’ll keep saying them,” Quinn said just a day after the General Assembly ended its spring session on May 31.

This is Illinois State Senator Terry Link, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, says there are already protections in the bill.

“There is as many safeguards as humanly possible could be in this bill,” Link (D-Waukegan) said.

He’s offered a proposal that would implement the ban on contributions.

“We’re more than happy to do it and we will do it if he wants it. We’re more than happy to do the campaign bad. We’re not trying to embarrass the governor. I’m trying to work with the governor,” Link said. “I think the members have shown in the House. I know that we have a veto-proof in there if we need it in November and I think we have the same here in the Senate.”

Link said the state budget’s a mess, so it makes sense for the state to expand gambling. After all, the state will take a cut to the tune of about $400 million.

“When we’re slashing and cutting and closing facilities, and doing things that are hurting people left and right, and we can do something that can create jobs and bring in revenue without a tax increase on any person on the state of Illinois, they’re willing to do it,” Link said.

Another legislator who’s pushing racetracks to have slots is state Rep. Lou Lang. The Democrat’s office is in Skokie, and he usually addresses urban and suburban issues. He said he’s sympathetic with rural Illinois, too, and he wants slots to strengthen the horseracing industry.

All the horse breeders, groomers, trainers and jockeys depend on it.

“Until we want to get our heads out of the sand and fix this, we’re going to continue to lose agribusiness jobs in Illinois. And even though I live in Cook County where we have very few farms, I’m very familiar with how difficult this economy has been for the agribusiness community across our state,” Lang said. “I feel stronger than ever that this is a provision of the bill that must stay in.”

Quinn and the General Assembly have butted heads over the slot machines and racinos issue before only to end in a stalemate that started all over again. That’s something the industry doesn’t want.

After all, it depends on quick fun and fast horses. The last thing it wants is another slow political battle.

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