As Boycott Ends, Illinois Racing Hopes for Assistance

Illinois harness horsemen have ended a 2 1/2-month entry-box boycott with a deal that makes new state-authorized funding for all Illinois racing interests even more vital.

The new, two-year harness agreement between the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association and the racetracks basically defers the question of whether tracks or horsemen suffer most from the current funding shortfall, created last year when the state eliminated purse subsidies. It anticipates there will be a deal in the legislature on several gaming issues, and that such a deal will include some combination of on-track slot machines or a slice of revenue from a new riverboat casino or some similar mechanism.

On the Thoroughbred side, the National Jockey Club opened its meet at Hawthorne Race Course March 1 with management agreeing to fund purses on the assumption such a deal will be forthcoming. That hope is fueled by the state's desperate need for revenue, and the fact expanded gaming is the only obvious source for that revenue.

Hawthorne operations director Thomas Carey said before the meet began he was "rolling the bones" on a legislative deal. It has been difficult to get the various diverse racing, casino, and other interests to agree on legislation.

Under current law, tracks are entitled to a share of revenue from a new Chicago-area casino that has been stalled by the Illinois Gaming Board and court action. Newly inaugurated Gov. Rod Blagojevich reportedly has begun prodding the IRB to get the casino up and running.

Racing interests, skeptical about the casino's future, reportedly are willing to trade that questionable future asset for the right to install slot machines or other gaming devices on their own premises. As often happens in such negotiations, the various racing interests continue to work behind the scenes to gain advantage over one another in any deal.