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posted: 1/28/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Act now to give horse racing some breathing room

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  • million_3ne081702JL Photo0161698 Lewnard C02-19XX The number 7 horse, Beat Hollow, with jockey Jerry Bailey, emerges from the pack at the finish of the 2002 Arlington Million, Saturday, at Arlington Park.

      million_3ne081702JL Photo0161698 Lewnard C02-19XX The number 7 horse, Beat Hollow, with jockey Jerry Bailey, emerges from the pack at the finish of the 2002 Arlington Million, Saturday, at Arlington Park.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The horse racing industry depends a lot on "breathing room" these days. Breathing room in which to see whether an improvement in the economy will bring people back to the track and the betting windows. Breathing room to determine how much of an impact slot machines at the track would make. Breathing room in which merely to find the legislative will to allow slots at all.

Now, the term has come up in the context of another gambling-related issue on which horse racing in general, and Arlington International Racecourse in particular, greatly rely at the moment -- online betting.

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The state law permitting online betting on horse racing expires on Friday, the same day the Illinois Racing Board will meet to set the calendar for racing in the upcoming season. Without the revenue produced by online betting, the board says it cannot provide the resources to regulate a full season, so it has developed an alternative that would drastically reduce live racing in Illinois, including cutting in half the number of dates for Arlington to operate.

Can the racing board delay a decision for a week or two to give lawmakers some time to consider stepping in? Perhaps. But under the best of circumstances, time is severely limited. Some racing venues would normally open in mid-February, so decisions about the racing calendar really cannot be delayed.

And this one shouldn't -- though it's important to keep in mind that the fundamental issue right now is breathing room.

Online betting for horse races is a controversial topic in its own right, but even within the horse racing industry, where the concept is generally favored, disputes over distribution of earnings have held up conclusive action. A bill currently before the legislature would extend online gambling for three years, under terms tracks and the horsemen have agreed to.

For our part, we have reservations about the notion of allowing online gambling at all. But we recognize the activity has a deep and immediate impact on an industry in the midst of adapting to a new gambling environment. Arlington alone estimates that the proposed loss of racing dates this season could cost as many as half the jobs from its 2,000-person seasonal hiring.

So, the topic merits discussion, and if it's to be allowed, the complex matter of how its revenues should be distributed needs to be conclusively established. In short, the law provides the breathing room to do that.

But there's not much time left in which to save the upcoming racing season. So, the legislature should use what little it has to address the issue in the short term and provide a framework to ultimately decide it in the long term. The best opportunity to do that is to vote on Wednesday -- the only scheduled session day this week -- to approve legislation allowing online gambling three more years, then commit to using that time, that breathing room, to reach a final decision resolving the issue once and for all.

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