Horse tracks trot out an old nag to get cash from Illinois lawmakers

A rider and horse train at Fairmount Park Racetrack in Collinsville.
A rider and horse train at Fairmount Park Racetrack in Collinsville. News-Democrat

She was a reliable old nag, but years of neglect and fast, shiny newcomers have left Illinois' horse racing industry barely able to get out of the starting gate.

Fairmount Park is starting this racing season just like it's started every racing season in recent history: Seeking relief from state lawmakers and threatening a shortened live racing schedule. This year's only difference is that there is little hope live racing will make it to September. Don't bet on them making it past the beginning of July.

Horse racing deserves special treatment, because it creates the kind of economic impact that few other forms of legal gambling create. Horses can make money for hay and grain farmers, breeders, trainers, owners, track employees and other businesses near a track.

How many restaurants do you see springing up near casinos? What restaurants open so they can have five slot machines, or convenience stores so they can sell lottery tickets?

Still, Illinois took the gambling form that once generated more than one-half of its gaming tax revenue and added competition that made horse racing a shadow. It generated less than one-half of one percent of the state gambling taxes in 2017.

The Illinois Senate wanted to give slot machines to the state's horse tracks, but the House shied. Maybe it will happen this year.

But they need to finally do something. You either value and back the one form of gambling that creates real economic activity, or you decide a beleaguered state doesn't need the regulatory distraction or competition for the more profitable gambling forms.

Shoot the nag or start feeding her.