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Thursday, June 9, 2011 02:54 pm

The gamble on harness racing and slots at the state fairgrounds

Legislation helps horse industry but what about families?

The owners of a major standardbred breeding farm in central Illinois were planning to put a “For Sale” sign on their racehorses at the end of the summer. That was before the General Assembly passed a bill May 31 to expand harness racing and add slot machines at the state fairgrounds.

With the horse racing industry troubled by high feed prices and a low return on yearlings, Ken Walker says the business he owns with his wife, Patricia, is now saved because of the money slot machines and a nine-month schedule of horse racing at the fairgrounds will bring to the Sherman couple. That is if Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signs the more than 400-page legislation, which has yet to reach his desk.

“This bill will save the industry,” says Walker. He calls the horse racing industry “devastated” and adds: “If this didn’t pass, we were going to have a big sale.”

The legislation would also include a massive expansion of casinos across Illinois, including casinos in Chicago, Danville, Rockford, Park City and a location to be announced. Slot machines will supposedly feed money into horse racing, which Walker hopes will be a “shot” to revive the industry.

The veterinarian and his wife have raised standardbred racehorses – which race at the state fairgrounds – since 1974 on their 600-acre property in Sherman. He claims he couldn’t keep the $2 million to $3 million business up and running without the revenue from the expansion bill. The business lost at least $50,000 in operational costs last year. He worries he could lose $100,000 this year if Gov. Quinn doesn’t sign the bill.

Not everyone agrees that horse racing will be saved by the massive expansion. At the same time critics are worried about the local effect.

Anita Bedell, director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, has lobbied against gambling expansion in Illinois since 1994. She feels slot machines may pull money away from horse racing profits, and bring unwanted change to Sangamon County.

“I see it destroying the family atmosphere of the state fairgrounds,” says Bedell. “I see the high potential for addiction, and then that will spill out to individuals and families.”

She also feels that the bill did not receive enough input from citizens, who were enjoying their Memorial Day weekends while lawmakers adopted two amendments at the end of the session without a public hearing, then voted to pass the expansion.     

“The horsemen are going to tell you how wonderful this is, how it’s going to save horse racing,” says Bedell. “The bigger issue is the harm that will come to Sangamon County, to the people who live here.”

Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horseman’s Association, doesn’t think slot machines will downgrade the family-oriented atmosphere at the state fair.

“There’s no reason in my opinion that those two things can’t be carefully planned to keep it a fun, family atmosphere,” says Somone.    

At the Statehouse, Sen. Larry Bomke, a Springfield Republican, says he hesitated before voting yes on the legislation in part because of Walker.

“I’m not crazy about the bill at all,” he said shortly after the vote May 31.

“It helps the horsemen and that’s who I wanted to help. I really wish this were a bill alone for the horsemen. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get that.” Bomke adds, “It does help rural Illinois significantly.”

State Rep. Raymond Poe said he voted yes in part because of $25 million per year for 4H and Future Farmers of America.

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.


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