Metro-East News

90th season for Fairmount Park -- and another try at legalizing on-track gaming

As live racing returns for the 90th season Tuesday at Fairmount Park, lawmakers are again pursuing in-house casinos to help the state’s horse-racing venues compete with casinos and generate more revenue.

Lawmakers and lobbyists are again trying to put together a bill that will allow slot machines at tracks, as tracks in surrounding states like Indiana and Iowa have done, and are able to award exponentially higher purses than Fairmount Park and Illinois’ four other horse tracks.

The issue has been proposed and revisited during each session over the past several years. Fairmount Park President Brian Zander said the longer the Collinsville track waits for on-track gaming, the more difficult it becomes to attract horse owners to the track.

“Here’s the problem: My maiden race goes for $12,000 and the one in Arkansas goes for $25,000, and it’s the same horse,” Zander said. “What’s the difference? In Arkansas they have a casino and they just have other forms of gaming, and that’s really what we’re competing with.”

Former Gov. Pat Quinn has seen two bills in recent sessions pass out of both the House and Senate. The governor vetoed both. But lobbyist Lanny Brooks, who serves as executive director of the Illinois Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association in Collinsville, is optimistic that current Gov. Bruce Rauner will pass a gaming expansion if it reaches his desk.

“Yes, as opposed to Pat Quinn, Gov. Rauner has said he is OK on gambling,” Brooks said. “He has also said that although he is not a gambler, he has said that it should be left up to local communities.”

According to a statement released last week by the governor’s press secretary Catherine Kelly, “Gov. Rauner believes decisions on gambling should be done in close consultation with the local communities.”

Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, is again sponsoring a gaming expansion bill. Brooks said the latest legislation is similar to the bill Rita sponsored last year. Brooks also said proponents are awaiting next month’s mayor’s election in Chicago to see if incumbent Rahm Emanuel is re-elected because the Chicago mayor has been pushing for casino expansion, including adding a new casino to the city.

“That’s when you will see things moving in Springfield,” Brooks said.

Zander said potential gaming expansion would provide needed revenue in Illinois while re-investing in the state’s horse tracks as other Midwestern states have done.

“The state is in terrible shape and so I would think at some point, particularly with the new administration, that it appears at least at this point to not want to rely as much on taxes,” he said. “We think, generally, there might be an opportunity for expanded gaming as a way to fill that gap.”