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updated: 10/22/2013 2:06 PM

Arlington racecourse, horsemen at odds over online betting

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  • Arlington International Racecourse needs lawmakers to once again approve betting online or else its racing season could be cut.

       Arlington International Racecourse needs lawmakers to once again approve betting online or else its racing season could be cut.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 

Arlington International Racecourse leaders disagree with the horsemen who operate there and most of Illinois' other tracks over how to proceed with an online betting plan intended to save its season.

If it isn't worked out, the disagreement could complicate state lawmakers' efforts to meet a deadline at the end of January. That's when the latest rules allowing people to play ponies on the Internet expire, and the Illinois Racing Board says it would reduce Arlington's 2014 racing schedule if lawmakers don't send the board more money and approve online gambling once again.

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Arlington officials would prefer lawmakers approve the gambling rules as they are now, saying the system works fine at the moment.

"At some point, you need to let the businesses run a business," said track spokesman Thom Serafin said.

The top online betting company for Illinois is TwinSpires, which is owned by the same company that owns Arlington, Churchill Downs.

But the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and others, including Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero, argue they should get a bigger cut of the money bet online.

ITHA Executive Director Glen Berman said allowing people to bet via the web is supposed to help horsemen and tracks more than the companies that run the websites. He says the amount bet that has gone to purses for winners has dropped from about 3.4 percent in 2010 to about 2.8 percent last year.

"It's going the wrong way," Berman said. "It's not what was intended."

Lawmakers this year let the online betting law expire, only allowing it to start again several months later. The Illinois Racing Board says it lost $750,000 over that period and needs that much to regulate a full schedule.

The board has outlined four options for racing schedules depending on whether online betting is approved, the board gets more money, both happen or neither does.

Arlington wouldn't lose any live racing dates if online betting is approved but more money isn't. If lawmakers don't approve either option, Arlington's season could go from 89 live racing dates to just 49.

Neither side has high expectations of lawmakers sending more money to the Racing Board at a time when Illinois' budget troubles are headline news nearly every day. But Berman said the board could try to reduce costs by finding lower-cost options for horse drug testing.

Racing Board spokesman Mickey Ezzo says officials plan to review the contract when it expires next year.

Disagreement over an Internet gambling solution could complicate its reapproval. Ultimately, it's up to state lawmakers how to proceed.

But they tend to prefer a clear route that's agreed to by everyone in the industry. Lawmakers are in Springfield this week, but no action is likely. They meet again for a week in November, and it's unclear how often they'll meet in January before the deadline at the end of the month.

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