Illinois Harness Boycott Has Ramifications

An ongoing entry-box boycott by Illinois harness horsemen shut down live racing at Balmoral Park and Maywood Park for the first two weeks of 2003, with no end in sight and potential implications for the scheduled resumption of Thoroughbred racing in March.

The boycott is stems from a purse issue related to simulcast revenue. When full-card simulcasting was introduced in Illinois, handle on live racing plummeted because tracks keep a much smaller percentage of each dollar wagered on out-of-state races than on live races. State racing law was quickly changed, at the tracks' behest, to allow them to "recapture" those losses from the purse accounts. The state then agreed to make up the difference.

The scheme worked until last year, when state revenues dropped even faster than on-track handle and Gov. George Ryan vetoed the recapture appropriation from the state budget. That left purse accounts short by millions of dollars.

"If the state won't appropriate recapture money, horsemen should not have to be the personal piggy bank for Maywood and Balmoral," Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association President Tony Morgan said at a Jan. 9 rally at a downtown Chicago off-track betting parlor. "Balmoral and Maywood racetracks will remain closed to racing until a fair contract is offered."

Thoroughbred horsemen have not publicly addressed the question of recapture or purse levels, nor have they threatened to follow the example of harness horsemen. Privately, they have expressed concern about purse structures at Hawthorne Race Course and Arlington Park. The National Jockey Club is scheduled to open the live Chicago Thoroughbred season March 1 at Hawthorne.

Many racing officials believe the only practical way to restore lost purse money is through cutting racetracks in for a larger share of the gaming market by permitting slot machines on-track and by quickly implementing a new Chicago-area casino that would help fund racing. Newly elected state officials have indicated a deal could be cut. However, infighting within the racing industry so far has prevented a unified approach to negotiations.

Morgan, for example, said any slots-at-tracks legislation must guarantee support for purses. If it does not, he said, the IHHA would oppose it, he said.