Politics Stymies Racing-Related Bills in Illinois

Fierce partisan warfare over the state budget blocked a last-minute, controversial flurry of racetrack-related legislation in the final hours of the regular spring session of the Illinois General Assembly.

Included were bills that would have paved the way for consolidation of Sportsman's Park and Hawthorne Race Course, allowed tracks to operate slot machines, and advanced the cause of a new riverboat casino that would generate revenue for the racing industry.

Because the General Assembly failed to complete its fiscal chores, the session will drone on into the summer. After May 31, a supermajority is required to pass legislation. As a result, further action on gaming is less likely unless it is part of a tax package to fund state programs lawmakers are reluctant to cut.

The consolidation bill was pushed strongly by National Jockey Club, which operates racing at Sportsman's Park. It would have allowed the track to move its races to its next-door neighbor, Hawthorne, without loss of such perks as the right to operate off-track betting parlors, share in simulcast wagering, and take a cut of casino earnings.

Sportsman's Park waited until the final two weeks of the session to begin pushing for the bill, and did so without enlisting the support of other tracks. As a result, Arlington Park and state harness racing interests strenuously lobbied against the measure.

"There is time to work this by working with all the tracks," Arlington spokesman Thom Serafin said.

Serafin said the bill would cast racing in a bad light just as Arlington prepares to host the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships and would have other unintended consequences. For example, he said, if tracks are permitted to keep ancillary benefits after moving live racing elsewhere, Fairmount Park in southern Illinois "probably would go to the highest bidder."

Whether or not the consolidation bill resurfaces, National Jockey Club president Charles Bidwill III said Sportsman's intends to run its 2003 meet at Hawthorne as part of a joint venture still under negotiation. He said the NJC is willing to take the chance that its off-track betting and simulcast revenue rights will be protected before they expire, which would be several years after the cessation of live racing at the track.

Bidwill, however, said the decision would be more comfortable for the racing association if the legislation were in place.

The legislature's tentative budget deal omitted a proposal to allow riverboat casinos to add hundreds of new gaming stations in return for a higher tax rate. In addition, a long string of proposals to open a new riverboat casino in Rosemont fell by the wayside in last-minute negotiations. A portion of the casino's revenue would be earmarked for the racing industry.