Metro-East News

Industry, lawmakers: Struggling Fairmount needs gaming expansion

Fairmount Park horse race track in Collinsville ready for new season, same old challenges

Fairmount Park horse race track executive director Brian Zander discusses the track's short new season for live racing and the ongoing financial challenges to the state's original form of legal gambling.
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Fairmount Park horse race track executive director Brian Zander discusses the track's short new season for live racing and the ongoing financial challenges to the state's original form of legal gambling.

Other than the workers rolling dollies and hauling boxes in and out of the grandstand, Fairmount Park was quiet May 1.

Betting windows were closed. High-top tables in the concourse were empty. The few horses stabled there were back in their quarters after morning training on the track.

The next day, the racing season at the track began. This season will be the shortest — just 42 racing days — in the track’s history.

It’s nothing new. Fairmount Park and the state’s other tracks have struggled to remain competitive for years. Fairmount Park President Brian Zander said it’s largely due to the state law that prohibits race tracks from installing slot machines.

Zander said the states that surround Illinois all allow slot machines at their tracks. Winnings at those tracks far exceed winnings at Fairmount, because they’re mostly made up of proceeds from the slots. Even though Fairmount can draw several times more people on race days than tracks in other states can, Zander said those other tracks offer purses several times higher than what can be won at Fairmount.

With bigger money to be made elsewhere, many horse owners have stopped racing in Illinois.

Many of us in the Senate and the House want an expansion. We could use an expansion for a capital bill, but at the moment the priority is the budget. That is what’s transfixed the gaze of us in the General Assembly as well as the governor.

State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton

“There are a lot of horse owners from St. Louis. They would love to come to race at Fairmount Park. They want to see their horse, they want to invite their friends, they want to have an office party. A horse can race and be competitive at Fairmount for a $5,000 purse, but that same horse can be competitive in Indiana for a $20,000 purse,” Zander said. “Our purses rely solely on wagering on horses. In Pennsylvania, 90 percent of the purses they race for come from slots compared to 10 percent from wagers. In ours, it’s 100 percent from wagers because there’s no other option.”

Solutions

The power to try to fix the problem rests in part with the Illinois Racing Board, which sets schedules at each of the state’s three thoroughbred tracks. The continued exodus of horses from Illinois to other states motivated the board to toggle the tracks’ schedules, pushing Fairmount’s start date to last week, two months later than the traditional March start.

No early springtime races at Fairmount meant more horses would be available to race at Chicago-area tracks early in the season. The balance of available horses would then tip in Fairmount’s favor later on as one of the Chicago tracks closes until autumn.

The rest of the power is with state government, and lawmakers and advocates agree that expanding gaming in Illinois to allow slots at race tracks is needed. But the problem with hoping for a big-time gambling bill is that there’s little political appetite for passing one when the state’s gone nearly a year without a budget.

“We have reason to believe from the legislators that (gambling expansion) is tied to the budget,” said Lanny Brooks, executive director of the Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association. “I don’t know how long Illinois can go, though. It’s got to break soon, you would think. We’ve talked about some other, smaller sources of revenue.”

Many of us in the Senate and the House want an expansion. We could use an expansion for a capital bill, but at the moment the priority is the budget. That is what’s transfixed the gaze of us in the General Assembly as well as the governor.

State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton

One source would be generated via House Bill 335, sponsored by Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea. The bill authorizes advanced deposit wagering to continue through the end of 2018. Advanced deposit wagering allows bettors to load money onto wager accounts and to bet on races online or by phone. It would have phased out in February 2017 without a change in the law.

The bill easily passed the House 81-23 and currently is in a Senate committee.

Another bill, House Bill 2417 sponsored by Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, allows people to bet on races already run. It works the same as regular races, with bettors placing wagers on historical races without knowing the date of the race, its location or the names of the horses or jockeys.

The historical racing bill has languished in a House committee since March 2015.

Zander said another possible option would be to treat Fairmount Park like any other establishment with a liquor license and let it have just a handful of video gaming terminals.

“They’re in the bar across the street. They’re in the bar right on Black Lane. They’re in almost every bar in Collinsville. And yet Fairmount Park, which is three times the size of all of them combined, is not allowed any. We are specifically excluded,” Zander said.

Full-fledged expansion

Brooks said band-aid measures like advanced deposit wagering and historical racing might breathe another couple years of life in the business in Illinois, but “it just wouldn’t be enough to turn the corner.” A gaming expansion, he said, “is the only thing that I see that’s going to do the trick.”

State lawmakers approved gambling expansion bills in 2012 and 2013, but then-Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed them both, saying they weren’t restrictive enough.

Local lawmakers think so, too.

“You can’t run 50 days a year and have small purses and expect to have horses stay at your stable. With a spit and a promise we hope we have enough horses to make a card,” Kay said. “You need a comprehensive gaming bill.”

“Many of us in the Senate and the House want an expansion. Expansion is long overdue. We’re losing market share” to other states, said Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. He said lawmakers favor expansion not just because it would save the racing industry.

“We could use an expansion for a capital bill, but at the moment the priority is the budget,” Haine said. “That is what’s transfixed the gaze of us in the General Assembly as well as the governor.”

You can’t run 50 days a year and have small purses and expect to have horses stay at your stable. With a spit and a promise we hope we have enough horses to make a card. You need a comprehensive gaming bill.

State Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon

Speaking of the governor, Haine added that Bruce Rauner might be more friendly to gaming than his predecessor.

“He has never expressed any hostility to a gaming bill,” Haine said.

Indeed, last May Rauner said that while he was personally no fan of gambling, he was “open” to expanding gaming in Illinois. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Déjà vu

Gambling expansions that included new casinos in Chicago and four other locations and also would have allowed slots at racetracks passed in 2012 and 2013 but were vetoed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn. A similar bill with tighter restrictions was floated in 2014 but died without getting a vote.

“Pat Quinn unilaterally put his stamp of disapproval on the entire state with respect to gaming which included race tracks,” Kay said. “I didn’t see, quite frankly, why there was such a problem with the last (bill). A lot of people were counting on additional revenues.”

He added that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if lawmakers gave one of those old bills another whack.

It sounded good to Brooks, too, whether as a solution to race track woes or to increase revenue statewide. “We’ve passed that bill twice. We know we have the votes for it,” he said. “I think the bill is already written and sitting on one of the speaker’s senior staff’s desk right now. I think that legislators are tired of going back to their districts and saying ‘we don’t have any money.’”

On the other hand, legislators are having tough conversations with constituents all over the state thanks to the budget breakdown. Talking about gambling remains low on the list, even in districts where race tracks are struggling.

“All of the local (senators and representatives), I think they share our frustration,” Zander said. “Constituents are going to them saying, ‘You know how long I’m working at Fairmount Park this year? It’s become a part-time job.’ And their answer is, ‘Look, I understand it. But how can I talk about what’s going on at Fairmount Park when they’re closing daycare centers in East St. Louis because there’s no budget and the state’s not paying people?’”

“That’s just not going to happen,” Kay concluded. “I don’t think you’re going to see a gaming expansion bill this year.”

Tobias Wall: 618-239-2501, @Wall_BND

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