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Monday, February 28, 2011

Closing Up Shop in Chi Town?

After the shafting the horse racing industry received at the end of the last legislative system when the bill to permit slots at tracks was pulled by State Representative Lang on the last day; despite the bill apparently having the votes to pass (he now claims he didn't have the votes due to new taxes passed that day), a new bill is being fast tracked to get the legislation through the State Senate and in front of the Governor. Supposedly, the Governor was going to veto the original bill but we will see if he will sign a stripped down version of the slot bill.

Well, the dominos are getting ready to fall.  According to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, Illinois Racing is facing extinction, with Maywood Park likely to be the first to fall.  According to Duke Johnston, owner of both Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, Maywood Park will likely close by June if slots are not approved for the racetracks.  One can assume that Balmoral Park will remain open on borrowed time for a little bit longer before they end up closing.  Quad City Downs, which operates only as an OTB ceased live racing a long time ago and they had hoped with the new bill they could resume live racing.

But the problem is not restricted to harness racing; thoroughbred racing will likely face extinction as well.  Fairmount Park, which used to host harness racing will likely cease operation first and even Arlington Park, operated by Churchill Downs figures to be in jeopardy of discontinuing operations.

How bad is horse racing doing in Illinois?  Since 2002, wagering in Illinois decreased 62% on standardbred racing while the runners did slightly better with a decrease of 54%.  What happened to racing in Illinois?  The same as elsewhere, a state legislature which authorized casinos without allow racetracks the opportunity to do so.  The state had legislated 3% of riverboat revenue would go to racing to help support purses, but to this day, the riverboats have managed to stonewall the racing industry from getting this money.

Let's not kid ourselves, the qualify of racing at Balmoral and Maywood is horrible so bettors may not miss these two tracks, but the standardbred industry can't afford to lose exposure in a large metropolitan area.  In this respect, the closure of Maywood and Balmoral would be just as bad as a potential closing of the Meadowlands.

But while the legislatures in many states may be the cause for racing to decline, the industry shares an even larger portion of the responsibility.  The industry had the chance to innovate and it made the decision to do nothing and cast its future on slot machines.  As a result, the denial of VLTs to racetracks is almost always fatal to racing.  The sad thing is racing is still doing nothing to reversie its fortune, continuing to rely on income from VLTs which the Great Recession is almost certain to cut off.  It is almost as if the industry is on death row and other than throwing out a few token appeals here and there, it is resigned to its fate.
Dean over at Pull the Pocket talks about retiring the horse Stonebridge Gem.  No, I don't expect each stable to keep a barn full of horses that can't earn their keep, but if this sport had more owners who looked at horses as more than investments; an attitude which has been somewhat lost since the Meadowlands opened, the sport would be better off.

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