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Measure to allow slot machines at Ill. racetracks awaits governor's signature


Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and horse tracks used to be the only options for legal gambling.

Then came riverboat casinos.

For years race track owners  in Illinois have asked lawmakers to allow slot machines at their tracks, creating so-called "racinos."

Now all it will take is a signature from Governor Pat Quinn.

But as St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports, it’s not a sure thing.

A tractor pulls the gates onto the track at Fairmount Park Racetrack. Once the bell rings the gates open and the horses leap forward, racing by the people who stand along the rail.

The crowd last Friday night was a mix, with young kids watching from their parents’ arms and older people sitting further back at picnic tables.

Judy and Jack Kuenne of Millstadt, Ill. are with a group of couples. They come here every weekend.

“We love it. We love to come out,” Judy Kuenne said. “We all throw in like $5 and then someone gets to pick the race. It’s something to do, something different.”

Horses have been racing at Fairmount Park for more than 80 years, but in recent times the track has been in decline.

It used to be horses raced nearly year-round, but last year there were just 52 racing days.

The Kuenne’s and their friends say they would welcome the slot machine if it meant Fairmount would stay open.

Jack Kuenne points to the Jumbotron, the picture marred by black squares.

“How long has it been since that TV screen worked? They need some money I guess,” he said.

Bigger purses, more racing days

Fairmount is one of five horse tracks in Illinois, and the industry has been trying for years to convince state lawmakers to allow slots.

This spring they finally did so.

Lanny Brooks is executive director of the Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents owners and trainers.

“It was a really big deal for us,” he said. “It was kind of a landmark day.”

He says if the governor signs the legislation it would mean bigger purses for owners whose horses win and more racing days.

Brooks insists adding slots at Illinois racetracks is about competing with so-called “racinos” in states like Iowa and Indiana, not the casinos next door.

“We have no intention to compete with local casinos. We just want to be able to compete with other states that have added electronic gaming at racetracks,” Brooks said. “We want to keep our horsemen here so they can make a living here without having to run up and down the road and race to other tracks.”

Just creating more venues?

Tom Swoik is not convinced.

He’s the executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, and represents the Argosy Casino in Alton among others.

“This legislation does not create new gamblers, it just creates more venues for the people to gamble at,” Swoik said. “So what that means people will be leaving existing casinos to go to other ones.”

He says revenue at Illinois casinos like the Argosy and East St. Louis’ Casino Queen is already down by a third.

Swoik argues adding slots machines at race tracks would make matters worse.

The wide-ranging bill also would allow five new casinos in the state, mostly around the Chicago area.

Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has been lukewarm to the expansion.  Early last month he made it clear that his signature was not guaranteed.

“I think most people in Illinois, average people, when they take a look at the size of this would say it’s excessive, it’s top heavy, it’s too much,” Quinn said.

New revenue in a cash-strapped state may be hard for the governor to resist.

Illinois already raised taxes this year, but as the fiscal year ends the state still has nearly $4 billion in unpaid bills.

Lanny Brooks with the Horsemen’s Association is optimistic the governor will sign.

Even if the governor doesn’t, Brooks said the horse track has been beating the odds for years, just by staying open.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.