Illinois Tracks Could See Casino Money

By Bob Kieckhefer

After more than a dozen years of wrangling, Illinois race tracks and horse owners soon may see the influx of millions of dollars from riverboat casinos – and Hawthorne Race Course could add a casino to its racing operations, helping drive additional subsidies for all tracks.

The quickest infusion of money should be some $75 million currently held in escrow. Those funds were paid by riverboat casinos under terms of a state law passed more than two years ago but since tied up in court struggles. The casino boats have nearly exhausted their appeals and most observers feel the money should be ordered paid no later than spring of 2009.

The remaining issue then would be whether the owners' share of the cash is paid retrospectively – added to purses paid over the past two years – or added to purses going forward. The Illinois Racing Board will decide and horsemens' groups are urging support for whatever the IRB mandates.

Frank Kirby, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said his group hopes any IRB decision is implemented quickly. "This already has gone on far too long. We need to get that money out there," Kirby said.

Going forward, the state of Illinois is preparing to finally reissue a long-dormant 10th state riverboat license and 15% of the adjusted gross receipts from that license are earmarked for racing.

Seven groups filed bids for the license, ranging from a high of $435 million for a site in Rosemont, near O'Hare International Airport down to a $60 million offer from Country Club Hills. Hawthorne, in partnership with two developers and using former Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka as "front man," bid $150 million with a plan that calls for rebuilding the track into an entertainment "destination."

Hawthorne's total development plan has an estimated $500 million pricetag and includes a family-themed water park, movie theaters, a bowling alley, and dining facilities as well as live racing and casino gaming.

Tim Carey, Hawthorne's president and general manager, said the bid has more going for it than just the amount offered for the license.

"We already own the land," he said before a news conference announcing the plan. "We have infrastructure and we could have a casino up, operating and generating revenue for the State of Illinois within six months."

Carey also pointed out Hawthorne is located close to two of Chicago's major expressways and within minutes of Midway Airport.

The Illinois Gaming Board also has indicated the price of the bid will not be the only factor in deciding a winner. After allegations of impropriety, ties to organized crime and other character issues paralyzed the first attempt to reissue the license, the IGB is seeking a bidder with "character, credibility and integrity," said chief counsel Michael Fries.