Issue of the Week-Crunch time in Illinois

11:22 AM 23 Oct 2007 NZDT
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Issue Of The Week with Josh Potts

When it comes to harness racing in the state of Illinois, it hasn’t been all sunshine and joy lately.

For many years, purses have been stagnant or declining. Many of the top horsemen, as a result, have sought racing opportunities in other states.

This isn’t the first column in which I have lamented the loss of Tim Tetrick, Tony Morgan, and Andy Miller’s everyday presence from Illinois racing. But I must continue to lament away.

After all, Harness Racing New Zealand reported last week that Andy Miller has been installed as the early favorite to win the 2007 World Driving Championships, to be raced in Australia and New Zealand next month.

Representing the U.S.A. in 2005, Miller finished fourth in the world. Indeed, he has certainly come a long way from his hometown of Arthur, a small community in eastern Illinois.

In addition to the talent drain, Illinois’ next door neighbor, Indiana, will have slot machines at their racetracks next year.

This will certainly lead to an increase in purses offered at their tracks. While I am very happy for the horsemen in the Hoosier State, I can’t help but wonder if this will cause more of Illinois’ horsemen to make a mad dash east.

It makes one wonder what Illinois will do to counter.

This brings us to last Wednesday’s Illinois House Gaming Committee hearing in Chicago.

It was standing room only as committee members, media, advocates for the thoroughbred racing industry, advocates for the harness racing industry, Department of Agriculture personnel, and, of course, anti-gambling activists filled the hearing room at the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago.

There was even one gentleman there advocating for the quarter horse racing industry in Illinois. I wasn’t aware that we raced equine dragsters in the Prairie State, but now I find myself better informed.

The Gaming Committee heard testimony on two pieces of legislation, House Bills 2035 and 480. While there are differences between HB 2035 and HB 480, the passage of either bill could have a significant impact on harness racing in the state of Illinois.

While each bill also addresses casinos, thoroughbred racing and various other issues, HB 480 provides for the placement of slot machines at racetracks throughout the state, but not advance deposit wagering.

HB 2035, on the other hand, includes provisions for advance deposit wagering, but not slots at the tracks. It does, however, provide for an impact fee to the horse racing industry. The Illinois Senate has passed a version of HB 2035.

I spoke to the chairman of the Illinois House Gaming Committee, Rep. Lou Lang, after the hearing to get his thoughts on how the hearing went.

“I thought it was a valuable hearing. The goal was to lay options on the table for us to look at,” said Lang. “Some say impact fee, some say slots.”

Rep. Lang sponsored HB 480. But he is quick to point out that he does not prefer HB 480 over HB 2035 simply because he was a sponsor of one and not the other.

“I feel that HB 480 is a superior bill because it is a compilation of all the best ideas,” he said.

“And I think there is interesting momentum taking place on two issues. The first is advance deposit wagering, which we ought to consider. I didn’t have it on HB 480, because I thought it would weigh it down too much.”

As Illinoisans have seen several times before, it is often difficult to pass a gaming bill of any kind.

The thought is that if you add too many features to a piece of gaming legislation, you run the risk of turning off too many legislators, and the bill itself falls apart under its own weight.

Adding too many components to a bill is often referred to as “Christmas Treeing.” The weight of too many pretty, shiny ornaments and lights causes the whole tree, or bill, to fall down. And then, you are left with nothing.

“At this moment in time, I’d like to have both (advance deposit wagering and slots) on a bill,” said Lang.

In addition to advance deposit wagering and slots, Rep. Lang also made mention of another key ingredient to an effective gaming bill.

“In HB 2035, every fund is subject to appropriation. That doesn’t work. In every bill I’ve done, the money is not subject to appropriation. Instead, it must go directly to the Department of Agriculture for distribution.

“You have no bill otherwise. It doesn’t do anyone any good to make them go down to Springfield and beg for their money every year.”

The reason that an expansion of gaming is being considered at this time is due largely to the fact that there are several projects that state officials would like to undertake, but with a limited number of dollars to fund them.

Road and bridge construction, education funding, and health care expansion, among other items, do not come cheap.

Raising taxes is rarely, if ever, popular with the electorate. So why not balance the budget on the backs of those who are willing to wager large chunks of money on how the reels will land on a slot machine? Or on the #3 horse in the fifth race?

After all, if you do not wish to wager on slot machines, the #3 horse, or any other horse for that matter, you have one solid, viable option: Don’t go to the racino.

Problem solved.

Whenever legislation such as HB 2035 or HB 480 is the subject of debate, Illinois horsemen remind anyone who will listen that the horse racing industry employs tens of thousands of people – from the trainers and drivers to the feed producers and farriers.

And horse racing is a multi-billion dollar industry. The loss of such an industry would have an immediate negative impact on the state’s economy.

As a result, there is no time like the present for horsemen and harness racing fans alike to call their local legislators, in the Illinois House and Senate, and let them know that they would like to see a substantive gaming bill passed.

In fact, Rep. Lang invites you to call his Springfield office at (217) 782-1252 if you are not sure how to contact your state legislators.

Both advance deposit wagering as well as placing slot machines at the racetracks would go a long way toward bolstering the harness racing industry in Illinois. But it is important to remember that even if we get one, or both, of those wonderful goodies, our job in the industry is far from over.

Tracks, trainers, drivers, owners, breeders, weekly web columnists, and anyone else associated with harness racing must do everything in their power to promote and market the great game that is harness racing in Illinois.

We need to be in the business of fan creation and retention. We need to remind people that while slots might be fun, so is handicapping and watching the races.

In fact, to get a head start on all of this, we can begin promoting Balmoral Park’s race card on Saturday, November 3. Some of the top trotters and pacers from all over North America will contest six different American National stakes on that night.

If you have ever thought about bringing a friend who might be new to the races, that particular night of racing will be about as good as any other, with over $1 million in purses up for grabs.

Do you live too far from the track? Then grab your friends and go to your nearest off-track betting (OTB) parlor.

Let’s face it, if the industry as a whole (not just in Illinois, but everywhere) had more fans and horseplayers, we wouldn’t be clamoring for slots or anything else, because we’d be standing on our own two feet.

As we stand currently, we are asking state government for two things that would help us greatly.

If we get slots at the tracks and advance deposit wagering in Illinois, and we continue to flounder, then it may be a long time before we get anything else that could substantively help our industry again.

And then what will we do?

Josh Potts

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