Illinois Racing Subsidy Goes to Governor for Approval

The Illinois General Assembly has approved and sent to Gov. Rod Blagojevich legislation that would provide as much as $35 million a year in subsidies for Illinois racing--but only for two years.

The money represents a 3% share of revenue from the state's four most lucrative riverboat casinos. The rationale behind the revenue shift is that the floating casinos benefited from a 1999 gaming law revision, but racing's share of that negotiated legislation never materialized.

Of the approximately $35 million a year in new racing revenue, 60% would go to purses and the remainder to tracks. Of the 60% in purse augmentation, 57% would go to Thoroughbred racing and 43% to Standardbred racing.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Molaro, said in a summary: "The decline of the Illinois horse racing and breeding program, a $2.5 billion industry, would be reversed if this (bill) was enacted...Total purses in the state may increase by 50%, helping Illinois tracks to better compete with those in other states. Illinois currently ranks 13th nationally in terms of purse size; the change would propel the state to second or third."

Passage was engineered in large part by Senate President Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat who strongly supports expansion of gaming, including a land-based casino for downtown Chicago. As a condition of supporting the riverboats-to-racing plan, Jones reportedly insisted on a pledge by the racing industry to support gaming expansion during the 2007 legislative session.

He then cemented that support by inserting a two-year "sunset" provision into the subsidy before calling it for a Senate vote. Jones now is expected to make extension of the subsidy contingent on passage of broader gaming legislation.

Blagojevich did not immediately react to the legislation. He previously has opposed expansion of gaming, but during his election campaign spoke of helping racing--specifically by leveling the playing field with other forms of gaming.

"I want to be governor for 10,000 reasons," Blagojevich told a fund raising function at Hawthorne Race Course June 28, 2002. "One of them would be to help the horse racing industry in Illinois. I know your industry needs help. I know you've got a raw deal over the last couple of administrations...What I've learned is that the health of the horse racing industry in the Chicago area has implications all over the state of Illinois."

He promised he would "look at other states...and even Canada, to see how other forms of gambling affect your industry."

Enactment of the subsidy would be welcome news to horsemen. Reacting to a previously announced purse increase for the Arlington Park meet that begins May 5, trainer Jerry Calvin said: "It's good, but it's still not enough. With the expenses to train horses today, we really need higher purses. Hopefully this horse racing bill will pass."

Arlington has raised purses for maiden special weight and allowance races by $2,000 effective opening day. The money is available because of the longer period Arlington served as simulcast host during the first part of the year.