Dispute Threatens Illinois Legislative Agenda

Push for legalizing racetrack slots could be hampered, forcing purse cuts in 2015.

A bitter dispute between harness horsemen and Chicago-area tracks, threatening the industry's crucial legislative agenda, came to a head Feb. 17 with a victory for horsemen before the Illinois Racing Board.

The Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association and jointly owned Maywood and Balmoral Parks have not been able to negotiate a contract for 2014 racing. The IHHA also has withheld its consent for operation of BetZotic, an advance deposit wagering platform operated by the tracks.

Legally, Maywood and Balmoral need consent from the IHHA to win a license to operate BetZotic, unless they can show that consent is being "unreasonably withheld." BetZotic has been operating through January during an appeals process.

After a long and often acrimonious discussion, the IRB voted 6-3 to find the IHHA is not acting unreasonably in withholding its consent, a ruling that will terminate BetZotic's authority to operate in Illinois, effective March 2. The IRB also voted down a separate request by Maywood/Balmoral to scrap live racing on Wednesdays, a proposal strenuously opposed by the IHHA.

Several IRB members expressed concern the dispute could stand in the way of a legislative push for legalizing slot machines at racetracks. Lacking that action or another new revenue source, Illinois purses will take a substantial reduction in 2015.

The head of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said efforts to vacate IRB-approved racing dates also threatens the Thoroughbred side of the industry.

"How can we possibly attract owners and breeders to the state?" asked Illinois THA president Mike Campbell. "I just can't believe that after dates are awarded, tracks can come back and vacate dates."

IRB chairman William Berry opposed the tracks' request to go dark on Wednesdays, noting the industry less than one month ago won a significant legislative victory that permitted a full season of racing for both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds.

"To send the signal to the state that now we're prepared to cut racing dates sends the wrong signal," Berry said. He noted such action would have been especially damaging while the industry is "advocating legislation that would allow Illinois to be competitive with surrounding states."

The request to vacate Wednesday dates was rejected unanimously.

On the consent issue, representatives of the harness horsemen's organization argued they receive a smaller percentage of revenue from wagers made through BetZotic than through the other three wagering platforms operating in Illinois. That alone, they said, makes it reasonable for them to withhold consent.

The dates, consent, and contract issues are all linked. Berry, who has worked with the embattled parties in contract negotiations, again urged them to convene and settle on a compromise.

Without a united front, he said in winding up the meeting, efforts to enact a gaming expansion bill with a "slots at tracks" provision will be seriously compromised. "We're trying to tell the legislature to change its mind about something," Berry noted.

In other action, the IRB  approved a revised stakes schedule for Fairmount Park, in downstate Collinsville near St. Louis. Last year, the track ran four $50,000 stakes for Illinois-breds. This year, it switches to two stakes for state-breds, each worth $100,000, to be run Sept. 9. 

Fairmount's Brian Zander said the bigger purses are more likely to attract horses from the Chicago area and the Tuesday date could produce more national wagering activity. The schedule was approved unanimously.