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updated: 11/11/2013 5:17 AM

Effort to save Arlington horse racing season enters home stretch

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  • Arlington International Racecourse is running out of time to get a state law extended and save its summer racing season from cuts.

       Arlington International Racecourse is running out of time to get a state law extended and save its summer racing season from cuts.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 

The effort by the Illinois horse racing industry and state lawmakers to save the summer season at Arlington International Racecourse and elsewhere is almost certain to come down to a photo finish.

When Illinois lawmakers left Springfield Thursday, they left without a new law to prevent Arlington's live racing season from being cut nearly in half to just 49 days next year.

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The Illinois Racing Board says officials must OK betting on horses online beyond Jan. 31, when the law allowing it is set to expire. Also, the board wants $750,000 to cover its deficit for the year.

If it gets neither, the racing season would be slashed because the state won't have money to regulate a full season.

But the Illinois House and Senate are both scheduled to meet just once before Jan. 31 -- on Jan. 29, the same day Gov. Pat Quinn is scheduled to give his annual State of the State address. Not much else gets done in Springfield that day as lawmakers listen to the speech and use the following hours to give their opinions on it.

Plus, Arlington leaders are at odds with the rest of the horse racing industry over how to proceed, putting up another sturdy hurdle on the path to a solution.

"We are routinely told by the legislature: 'Come to us when you have an agreement,'" said Glen Berman, executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Arlington supports a proposal that would raise taxes on all bets, from live racing to off-track betting and online.

Berman's group and other Illinois tracks don't want live racing taxes to go up and are backing a proposal that only raises taxes on online bets.

Both proposals would extend online betting for three years. Churchill Downs, which owns Arlington Park, also owns the state's biggest online horse racing operation, TwinSpires.

Both proposals raise about the same amount of money and would be fine with the Racing Board.

"We want a full schedule of racing just like everybody else does," board spokesman Mickey Ezzo said.

Ezzo said moving the Jan. 31 deadline comes with some legal challenges, so the next couple of months could be tense for a horse racing industry that already has its share of stresses.

In 1992, gamblers bet more than $699 million on thoroughbred horses in Illinois, according to Illinois Racing Board reports. Twenty years later in 2012, that amount had dropped by more than 40 percent to more than $397 million.

The industry faces competitive pressure from other sources of entertainment and even other gambling options, from casinos to slot machines in bars and restaurants. But this most recent threat to its racing season is far more immediate. The pressure of a deadline could force compromise or push lawmakers to pick one proposal or the other.

"How we get there might not matter as much anymore," said Arlington General Manager Tony Petrillo.

Petrillo and other industry leaders were in Springfield last week talking to lawmakers. History on the issue doesn't point to fast action. The online betting law initially expired at the beginning of 2013, but an extension wasn't sent to Gov. Pat Quinn until five months later.

The lost revenue from those months is part of the reason the Racing Board is asking for more money and has said it would shorten the racing season if it doesn't get it. It approved alternative racing schedules for next year based on what does or doesn't happen in the legislature.

Their timing troubles might find some relief in an unlikely place as House Speaker Michael Madigan and other legislative leaders have said they might call lawmakers back to the Capitol before the end of a year if they can reach an elusive deal on how to cut teachers' and state workers' retirement benefits.

The most politically complex issue in Springfield at the moment, the pension debate has dragged on for years with no clear signs of an ending. But some officials would love to finish the issue before the new year starts, when elections and an expiring income tax hike will compete for lawmakers' attention.

Because the pension issue may not be resolved, there's no guarantee lawmakers will return to Springfield this year. And because that issue is so consuming, there's no guarantee that they'd tackle the racing industry's problem if they did.

Still, racing leaders are holding out hope. After lawmakers left Thursday with no resolution, one horsemen association called the looming crisis "doomsday."

"It's already getting late," Berman said.

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