Day At The Track

State Rep. launches effort to keep racetracks open

12:05 AM 12 Nov 2015 NZDT
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State Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City Balmoral Park to close next year
State Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City
Historic Balmoral Park to close next year

State Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City, is sponsoring legislation in the Illinois House to prevent the closing of Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, harness racing tracks, at the end of the year.

Jones, whose district includes Crete, where Balmoral Park is located, admitted to me that his effort is a long shot, "but the only hope we have right now of keeping Balmoral Park open next year so that it might attract a buyer."

The lawmaker questioned the Illinois Racing Board's decision to take harness racing dates away from Balmoral and Maywood, which had historically held them, and give them to Hawthorne Race Course.

"There was no public discussion about this, no consultation with state legislators, and we don't know exactly what information the racing board was acting on when it made its decision," Jones said, adding that he wants to hold a public hearing in Chicago to find out how the board reached its decision.

Jones' bill, H.B. 2663, would amend the Illinois Racing Act of 1975 and allocate a minimum of 30 days of racing in the next year to any race track that was in good standing during the current year, meaning Balmoral and Maywood.

Under the current law, the off track betting operations associated with Balmoral and Maywood could remain open for a few years, but would be placed in jeopardy by the way OTB money is distributed, according to Jones.

Jack Kelly, a former lobbyist for Balmoral and Maywood, said gambling revenues at OTB parlors are divided up among racetracks under a complicated system that rewards "host tracks" which are featuring live races. All the revenue wagered at local OTB parlors, he said, goes to those tracks that have live racing at the time (day or night), which has ultimately resulted in what he called a fairly equal distribution of funds between Arlington International Racecourse, Hawthorne, Maywood and Balmoral. According to Kelly, Balmoral and Maywood generate about one-third of all the OTB revenue in the Chicago metro area.

But if Maywood and Balmoral have no live racing next year, they would get none of that revenue split.

So Jones' bill would alter the "host" system that determines how revenues are split on bets made at OTBs and inter-tracks. The change would allow each OTB and race track to retain the commissions and purse money earned from betting out-of-state races at their respective operations.

Jones admitted that at this point he can't even muster the votes to get his measure out of a House committee.

"So my goal now is to get a hearing in Chicago where we can go into how the Illinois Gaming Board made its decision and how it was influenced by the people at competing racetracks in the hope that once people understand how these decisions were made they will start questioning the entire process," he said.

Jones said he believes Arlington and Hawthorne used a $78 million civil judgment against the Johnston Family, which owns Balmoral and Maywood, as fodder to sway the votes of racing board members.

The Johnstons were forced to file for bankruptcy after being caught up in the Gov. Rod Blagojevich scandal, resulting in a civil lawsuit filed by casinos for allegedly offering campaign contributions to the former governor in exchange for the state extending an agreement to share casino gambling revenue with the two racetracks. The contribution apparently was never made and the deal never completed.

"The racing board decided to take the harness racing dates away from Maywood and Balmoral because of that, but if it was a matter of them saying they wanted to clean up horse racing in Illinois and punish the tracks involved in the scandal, that could have been done back in 2011 when the information first came out," Jones said. "Instead, they waited for a decision in the civil suit.

"What I'm interested in is the economic impact on the communities I represent," Jones continued. "We have 270 acres of land out there in Crete that really isn't of much use for anything other than a race track. Its economic impact on Crete, Steger, Beecher, Monee and other surrounding communities is between $2 million and $3 million a year.

"There are hundreds of jobs at stake, either connected to the track directly -- tellers, food service staff, security, parking attendants, maintenance staff people who work the backstretch -- and those people employed by businesses that do business with the track," Jones said. "There are also people who live on the track, at Balmoral, and some of them may be able to relocate, but many of them will have no place to live.

"Finally, to sell that track to a new buyer, you have to be able to offer them something in return. No one is going to buy a race track if they are not guaranteed race dates by the state. It would be foolish to invest that kind of money. Our only hope of attracting a buyer, of retaining those jobs and that revenue for the businesses in the community, is to keep the track operating until a buyer can be found."

Jones said he hopes to convince south suburban mayors to support his measure and lobby their lawmakers to back his bill. Earlier this week, the legislative and policy committee of the Will County Board voted to back the legislation.

"This reminds me of the closing of Oak Forest Hospital," said Jones, who testified against the closing at a public hearing. "The closing of that hospital had a significant economic impact on the south suburbs. We lost jobs and revenue and most of that hospital remains vacant. We can't keep allowing our government, which we pay taxes to support, to work against the best interests of the people of the south suburbs. We have to take a stand and put a stop to this. I believe we can do it."

While Jones sounded optimistic, I'm not convinced there's time to reverse the gaming board's decision. Maywood has already shut down its operations and Balmoral is in the process of doing that, although it remains open for harness racing this year.

In addition, the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association, which represents breeders, trainers, drivers and others in the industry – came out in support of the Racing Board's decision because Balmoral and Maywood had each sought only two racing days a week next year, far too few to support the people who make their living in harness racing.

Hawthorne will host 117 days of harness racing next year, down from the 192 dates at Maywood and Balmoral Park this year, but far more than what those tracks had requested in 2016.

Trainers and horse owners also told me that purses at Balmoral had decreased significantly in recent years making it nearly impossible for them to show a profit. They expressed optimism that Hawthorne's purses would increase, making it easier for them to make a living.

Jones said he had not reached out to the horsemen, but planned to do so in the near future.

"I respect their concerns and their problems," Jones said, "but this is about the larger community. This is about the impact on the entire south suburban region. And they have to understand that."

Jones said he hoped to have his public hearing on Balmoral and Maywood sometime before Thanksgiving in order to gain support for his bill before Christmas.

Since there is no place to find the odds on such things, I'm officially setting the line at 100-to-1. You know, I've always been a sucker for long shots.


Reprinted with permission of The Southtown News

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