Hawthorne owners: No slots could doom track

February 17, 2012 3:15:55 PM PST
Another season of horse racing opened Friday at Hawthorne Race Course in the west suburbs. But, the owners warn, the track could be nearing its end if the state does not allow it to add slot machines.

Thirteen states have changed their laws to allow slot machines at horse racing tracks. Hawthorne is located in Cicero. It is the oldest race track in Illinois.

Race track owners say that 40,000 jobs in the racing industry and agribusiness are at risk if slot machines are not legalized for the state's five major horse racing venues. The familiar warning was issued again Friday as the so-called "sport of kings" renewed its struggle to survive in Illinois.

As thoroughbred racing opened for the 2012 season at Hawthorne, Tim Carey -- whose family has owned the track for 103 years -- was relieved that enough quality horses were brought in to compete.

"You have to have quality of horses," Carey said. "And if we don't have a breeding program in Illinois, because we're not paying enough in purses, we don't have an operation to run here."

But Carey says quality is waning at his and other Illinois tracks as venues in other states are using slot machine revenues to increase the amounts they pay the winners.

"When I look for a race for a horse, I know exactly what the conditions of the race are and what the purse is gonna be," said horse trainer Chris Block.

Block, a Barrington resident whose 35 employees handle 50 race horses at Hawthorne, says Illinois purses have not kept up with expenses.

"The opportunity to make more money racing horses exists much more in places like Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania," Block said.

In fact, there are 13 states where legalized slot machines inflate race track purses, and so-called "racino" bills are pending in 11 other states.

"We have to have slots at racetracks because of what's happening in other states," said Carey.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, fearing race tracks might become full-blown casinos, has refused to sign the gaming expansion bill that includes slots at race tracks.

State Representative Lou Lang is confident the budget-challenged governor will change his mind.

"Before the end of the legislative session, we'll have some movement, and we'll have a bill that'll put a billion dollars in the pockets of state government every year," said Lang.

Meanwhile, long-time horseplayer Leonard Peterson fears, if other gaming is not allowed in Illinois, his pastime could become a thing of the past.

"It's a dying sport anyway, I think its dying. And if you don't prop it up with the slots, it's probably going to die," said Peterson.

Lang said the gaming expansion bill as passed, with racinos included, could raise an immediate $1 billion for the state treasury.

Governor Quinn delivers his budget address next Wednesday in Springfield. When he talks about deficits Lang and the racing industry will quickly remind him of that potential windfall.