Illinois gambling expansion bill could breathe new life into horse racing industry

STICKNEY, Ill. (WLS) -- The expanded gambling legislation that Illinois lawmakers passed over the weekend could breathe new life into the state's struggling horse racing industry.

Trainers at Hawthorne Race Course, in Stickney, put horses through their paces Thursday morning before the weekend racing begins. Hawthorne is the only track in the state that still has harness racing. They also do thoroughbred racing in the fall.

But it is a sport that has been on life support in this state for years.

"Arlington Park, ourselves, Fairmont Park have been battling to stay alive and that's with two breeds, thorough- and standard-bred," said Jim Miller, Hawthorne Park's racing analyst.

Hawthorne's stables, which can house about 2,100 horses, currently have about a third of that because many owners prefer to race their horses on tracks that offer higher purses.

As a result, track operators have been lobbying for years to bring other forms of gambling to their facilities. They are celebrating passage of the gaming bill over the weekend, which will allow that and more at Illinois tracks.

"This is the best thing that's ever happened for horse racing in Illinois," said Tim Carey, president of Hawthorne Park. "It provides jobs, high purses and a chance to rebuild our industry."

Arlington Park, considered the crown jewel of horse racing in the Midwest, has also lobbied for slot machines for the last 20 years. They are now looking at options for adding a so-called 'racino' to the facility.

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At Hawthorne, they already have plans drawn to renovate the 400,000 square foot facility with slots, gaming tables, and a huge sports book.

The gaming bill also allows a license for another harness track in Cook County.

While nothing is official until Governor Pritzker signs the bill, Hawthorne is hoping to get it going as soon as possible.

"As soon as we get licensed by the gaming board, we're gonna put the shovel in the ground and go," Carey said.
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