llinois gamblers could soon have another new way to place bets, with a proposal to allow wagering on “historical” horse races passing another hurdle.
The Illinois Racing Board on Thursday approved proposed rules that would allow betting on videos of past races at Illinois racetracks — though the board’s own former attorneys said the move was not authorized by state law.
This type of gambling exists in some other states and involves placing bets on races that have already taken place, though the bettor doesn’t know the outcome of the race beforehand. Critics say the games essentially amounts to video slot machines, which many racing tracks have for years sought permission to install as a way to stem waning interest in their live races.
But even when video gambling was legalized in Illinois and has proliferated in recent years — contributing to record gambling revenues last year, according to a new state report — racetracks were left out of that gambling expansion.
Thursday’s vote by the racing board means the proposal now moves to the Illinois legislature’s rules committee, which must vote, following a public comment period, on whether to approve rules that would oversee the new game. If all goes according to plan, the change could go into effect in time for the 2019 racing season.
There are three remaining racetracks in Illinois: Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Hawthorne Racecourse in the Cicero area and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville. The proposal was floated by operators of Hawthorne and Fairmount. Arlington officials have not taken a position on it, waiting to see how the final proposal plays out.
Racing officials have said they would much prefer to have lawmakers approve full casinos and regular slot machines for racetracks, but that hasn’t happened so far. Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker has said he is open to expanding gambling, but has not specified what he would approve.
Anti-gambling crusader Kathy Gilroy objected that where the video horse racing machines are legal in five other states, players typically don’t even watch the races — as the machines allow players to do after they’ve placed their bets — but play them just like slot machines.
“Just as a spade is a spade, a slot is a slot!” she said. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”
She noted there were no limits set on the number of machines or when they could operate.
Horse owners praised the proposal as necessary to save a struggling industry. Gamblers bet less than half what they did on horse racing in the 1990s, and only a couple of dozen people watched the races Thursday at Hawthorne.
But in a joint statement, the owners and trainers groups said they had “serious concerns” that the rules may not fairly split electronic terminal revenue 50-50 between them and track owners, as has been done traditionally with bets on live races at the tracks. They also worried that the proposed rules allow for fewer racing days.
State law applies to “Illinois horse races,” but board member Thomas McCauley said historical horse racing would include races from all over, not necessarily Illinois, which owners feared could mean less money for them.
The racing board plans to publish the proposed rules on Dec. 7, allowing a comment period of at least 90 days, before the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules will vote on them. That will allow time to negotiate any changes, board Chairman Jeffrey Brincat said, adding that they were on “new ground.”
The Illinois Casino Gaming Association opposes the plan, saying it will further cannibalize a saturated gambling market.
Attorney Michael Pieczonka, who advised the racing board that it couldn’t legally allow the video terminals, is no longer with the board, and has become a tax judge.