Horses and slots: 12 other states link them at race tracks

  • Tim Broderick/Daily Herald Illustration

By Jeff Engelhardt
Updated 12/29/2010 6:35 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- Lawmakers in the coming weeks could try to wrap up the more than decade-long debate over whether Arlington Park should be allowed to have up to 1,200 slot machines.

But as the state possibly debates the controversial idea in the opening weeks of January, 12 other states already have slot machines at horse tracks, allowing gamblers to play games between races.


Arlington Park spokesman Thom Serafin said the addition of slot machines to the racetrack would allow Illinois to compete against neighboring states such as Indiana, which saw an increase in racetrack casino revenue in 2009.

"We'll compete with anyone, anytime, anywhere," Serafin said. "We just need to be given the opportunity to compete and run the business as a business."

Indiana has more than doubled its revenue from horse racing since 2008, at least partly because of two racetracks that recently added slots.

For example, Hoosier Park Racing and Casino in Anderson, Ind., which was exclusively a racetrack for 14 years, opened its casino in summer 2008 and has raised more than $450 million for the state, city and county since it opened. That's not to mention tourism money the casino has brought in and jobs it has created for employees there, supporters point out.

Track advocates say Arlington Heights could stand to reap similar benefits if slots at the track there draw more gamblers.

"It's helped us fill a funding gap in our municipal budget and really helped us keep our head above water, whereas other communities haven't had that," said Tammy Bowman, spokeswoman for the city.

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Still, some Indiana officials echo gambling expansion critics in Illinois, saying racetrack casinos are not the answer to the state's economic woes.

For one, the $500 million a year estimated to be created by Illinois' expansion plans would make only a small dent in the state's more than $13 billion budget deficit.

And Indiana state Rep. Peggy Welch, a 12-year Democratic legislator who voted against slot machines at racetracks, is concerned Indiana has become too dependent on gambling revenues. So as surrounding states such as Illinois and Ohio continue to expand gambling options, Indiana could see its share of the market decrease.

And that would mean less money for state government.

"We're going to start seeing our gaming revenue decrease especially as other states expand their gaming. All those residents are not going to be coming across to the Indiana boats," Welch said. "We need to decrease our dependence on gaming revenue … and use it more as a reserve fund.

Illinois opponents of the pending expansion proposal say slot machines at Arlington Park and other race tracks, along with four new northern Illinois casinos, would mean more gambling options than people can handle even inside the state.


Illinois' existing casino industry already has seen its profits plummet in recent years. With Des Plaines set to open a casino in the summer, Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said the focus should be on reviving the existing industry that has struggled the last three years.

"You're trying to expand an industry which has had its difficulties over the last few years," said Swoik, who represents the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, among others. "It would be like if General Motors opened additional franchises when they're losing business."

Iowa has slot machines at its racetracks, and its gambling market could be feeling the effects of saturation. Its overall gambling revenue fell 6.1 percent in 2009. A recent Iowa Gaming and Racing Commission report said that by the end of its 2008 fiscal year, the state already had nearly tapped its entire gambling market.

The 2010 American Gaming Association Survey of Casino Entertainment showed Iowa had 20,340 gambling positions, which was 10,005 more than Illinois.

That's why some proponents argue Illinois still has room to expand.

"Some people call it saturation, other people refer to it as competition," Serafin said.

Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said he believes the casino and horse racing industries can coexist. His state's racetracks bring in more than $1 billion a year, and total gambling revenue increased 21 percent from 2008 to 2009. He said slot machines at tracks there only helped the horse racing industry.

"It has certainly taken an industry that was flat on its back and revitalized it," McGarvey said. "You're seeing more racing dates in Pennsylvania. You're seeing more breeding in Pennsylvania, more barns opening that weren't here before."