Racing Legislation DNF in Illinois Legislature

Fierce partisan warfare over the state budget blocked a last-minute, controversial flurry of race track-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 targeted to provide funding for racing operations.

Since the General Assembly also failed to complete its fiscal chores, the session will drone on into the summer. After May 31, however, a "supermajority" is required to pass legislation. As a result, further gaming action now is less likely unless it is part of a tax-increase package to fund state programs that 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 Sportsman's to move its races to its next-door neighbor, Hawthorne, without eventual 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 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," said Arlington spokesman Thom Serafin. Serafin stated 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 their ancillary benefits after consolidating their live racing to another jurisdiction, Fairmount Park "probably would go to the highest bidder."

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

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

Racing scored a negative - and perhaps temporary - victory when 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. New gaming stations were expected to further erode racetrack business. It took a hit when another in a long string of proposals to open a new boat in Rosemont, Ill., with millions of dollars of its revenue targeted for racing, fell by the wayside in last-minute negotiations.

Since the state is likely to need even more revenue before the fiscal year is over, additional gaming easily could be back on the table before the summer is over.