After more than 25 years of frustration, Illinois racetracks and horsemen will soon be able to better compete with neighboring states that benefit from casino revenue, thanks to omnibus gambling legislation that passed both the House and Senate in Springfield during overtime sessions this weekend.
On Saturday, the Illinois House passed Senate Bill 690 by a vote of 87-27, easily exceeding the three-fifths super-majority needed in overtime for a bill to pass after the General Assembly's regular session ended at midnight Friday. The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 46 to 10 on Sunday, with two Senators voting “present.”
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has expressed strong support for the legislation and is expected to sign SB-690 into law. Both chambers of the General Assembly are controlled by Democrats.
Arlington Park and Hawthorne in the Chicago area will each get 1,200 gambling positions, along with the opportunity to offer sports betting. Fairmount Park in Southern Illinois gets 900 positions and sports betting. A license for a new harness track with 1,200 gambling positions and sports betting is also part of the legislation.
A slot machine equals one position, a blackjack table counts as six positions and a craps table is eight. Any combination of those three can be used, up to 1,200 total positions.
Churchill Downs, Inc., which owns Arlington Park, last year purchased majority interest in Rivers Casino – the state's largest and most successful. It's located just 14 miles southeast of the track in Des Plaines.
The legislation's main components call for the first casino within the city limits of Chicago – with up to 4,000 gambling positions – and six additional casinos in the suburbs and outlying areas, including Rockford and Waukegan. Other casinos in the state can increase their number of positions from 1,200 to 2,000. Midway and O'Hare airports in Chicago will also be permitted to install slot machines.
Online sports betting will also be permitted, as will sports betting at Illinois casinos and at sports stadiums with seating for more than 17,000. Wagering will not be allowed on Illinois college sports teams.
The legislation, which has provisions for a mandatory minimum number of racing dates, also calls for the elimination of racetracks' recapture of purse money that has cost horsemen millions of dollars annually. Tracks will not be obligated to share sports betting revenue with horsemen.
“We had descended to such a low point on so many different levels that Illinois racing had become very depressing,” said David McCaffrey, executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. “Passage of this bill provides hope and optimism – two foundations of horse racing.”
McCaffrey said he has urged horsemen to exercise patience going forward. The casinos might not be opened until 2020, which would delay the elimination of recapture until 2021.
“Tracks are going to have to get approved for gaming licenses,” he said. “That's going to take a certain period of time. Then there will have to be a build-out – installation of the machines. But this is a huge step in the right direction for Illinois racing.”
Current purse levels have Illinois Thoroughbred horsemen running for about $21 million annually – an anemic amount for what was once a major racing state. The Illinois breeding program has slipped to the point that state-bred races at Arlington are now open to horses bred in Arkansas and Louisiana.
By 2021, McCaffrey hopes Thoroughbred purses in Illinois will have doubled to between $40 million and $50 million.
Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president Mike Campbell sent the following message to members on Monday morning:
The day for which we all have waited is near. Over the weekend, Illinois lawmakers approved a plan to permit Illinois tracks to engage in casino-style gaming. They will be required, under this proposed law, to share a portion of that new revenue with purses.
The same legislation also will implement a structure to guarantee live racing. And it will spell the end of recapture – the albatross of Illinois racing.
The House approved the bill on Saturday, and the Senate signed off on Sunday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign the bill into law.
We did it, Illinois horsemen. For two decades, year in and year out, we have urged Illinois lawmakers to let tracks offer casino-style gaming for the purpose of boosting purses – and helping Illinois racing compete on a level playing field with other states already doing just that.
Our industry during those years lost thousands of jobs as Thoroughbred owners and trainers left this state for the chance to win better purses elsewhere. Jockeys, backstretch workers, blacksmiths, veterinarians, shippers – and so many other professionals whose livelihood is linked to live racing – left, too. Thoroughbred breeding here was decimated.
To be clear, it will take some time before Illinois Thoroughbred purses are substantially improved. But when the terms of this new law are fully implemented, Illinois can once again become a world-class destination for Thoroughbred horse racing. We look forward to sharing more details, as we have them, specific to the rollout of our state's new and considerably improved gaming landscape.
We are grateful for the leadership of Speaker Mike Madigan, Gov. Pritzker and former Gov. Jim Edgar on this legislation. We also appreciate the support demonstrated by all the lawmakers who voted to help return our sport and industry to its true potential.
Thank you, Illinois owners and trainers, for your patience and continued devotion to our sport and industry. Thank you ITHA Board of Directors for your leadership and steadfast commitment to protecting the best interests of horsemen. And thanks especially to the ITHA staff who worked so diligently to help pass this bill.
As a final note, Illinois horsemen in this legislative session also were successful in persuading lawmakers to allocate, as part of the state budget beginning July 1, approximately $1.7 million to reimburse owner's awards. The absence of such reimbursement from the state would have created a burden on the purse account and we are grateful for the continued consideration.
I'm proud to serve the finest horsemen I know.
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