Another problem for horse racing: fewer foals
SPRINGFIELD -- As gamblers place fewer bets at Arlington Park and prize money drops for winning horses, the effects are felt far from the track.
The number of thoroughbred horses born in Illinois has been dropping steadily, to 429 this year from 1,009 in 2006, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
"There's no future in it in this state at this point," said Frank Kirby, an Oak Brook breeder.
With fewer horses, industry experts say, come lost jobs for trainers and groomers, a smaller demand for hay and other economic effects that are felt across the state.
That's one of the arguments driving the push to allow tracks like Arlington Park to install slot machines to bring in more revenue. Lawmakers returning to Springfield this week could try yet again to make that happen.
Slot machines, the argument goes, bring more gamblers and more revenues that can be passed onto horse breeders and the industry via prize money.
Kirby said his farm at its peak was producing 450 foals a year. It's down to about 20 this year.
Kirby and others in the industry blame Illinois casinos for stealing gamblers and revenue from horse racing.
Betting at Arlington Park dropped 6.2 percent to $426.7 million last year, according to the Illinois Racing Board, continuing a steady decline. Attendance also was down. About 726,500 people went to the races last year, down from 789,700 in 2010, when Arlington had five more racing days.
Statewide, prize money for thoroughbred racers dropped 23 percent from 2006 to 2011.
Casino leaders, however, oppose slot machines at the racetracks because the increased competition could put a dent in their operations.
Casino revenue has declined steeply since 2008, when the indoor smoking ban took effect in Illinois and the recession made gamblers a little more careful with their money.
The new Rivers Casino in Des Plaines has become the biggest in Illinois in revenue, but receipts at the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin have dropped 43 percent from $396 million in 2008 to $227 million this year.
Anti-gambling advocates say slot machines at places like Arlington Park won't generate more interest in horse racing.
The machines, they say, will just draw people who want to play slot machines, leaving the racing industry without the renewed enthusiasm it's looking for.
"If they go ahead with the slots at the tracks, they're going to put the horsemen out of business," said Anita Bedell, director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems.
Still, as the state looks for jobs and revenue, slot machines at the tracks and the gambling taxes they could generate might look attractive to lawmakers.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, called the declining foal births a "clarion call" that lawmakers need to do something for the horse racing industry.
"Illinois would be crawling all over itself to save these jobs if it was in manufacturing," he said.
What state lawmakers will do remains to be seen.
Attempts for decades to expand gambling in Illinois have been stymied by the complicated politics of the issue.
This year, Gov. Pat Quinn rejected the first casino-expansion plan lawmakers were able to send to a governor's desk since they created gambling in Illinois more than 20 years ago.
Along with allowing 1,200 slots at Arlington Park, it would create new casinos in Lake County, Chicago, the South suburbs and elsewhere.
Now, in the coming weeks, lawmakers could try to override that veto or craft a different plan that Quinn would approve.
Lawmakers return to Springfield Tuesday.
Newly elected members of the General Assembly are sworn in Jan. 9, at which point all legislation resets and proponents of slot machines or other gambling expansion would have to start over.