Illinois horseracing has been in a precipitous decline (hanging by a thread, really) since the first riverboat casinos were christened in 1991. But the horsemen refuse to quietly fade away. Invoking their supposedly rich tradition and incessantly warning of economic havoc should they be allowed to fail, they demand, arrogantly, more. More, that is, than the 3% they’re legally allowed to skim from the casinos. What they want is Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) installed at the state’s five tracks so they can “properly compete” with the riverboats and neighboring racino states.
Without the racinos, many in Illinois predict catastrophe. Hawthorne president Tim Carey says (NBCChicago, 4/22/13) “it will be a slow, miserable death for racing.” And trainer Debbie Allison adds (WBEZ, 6/11/12), “If we don’t get the slots, we’re really just done.” Some, though, are less-than-sympathetic. Illinois politician Ed Schock (Chicago Tribune, 4/6/11): “If you can’t make it, then maybe it’s time to reconsider whether Illinois is a good place for horse racing. They’re already getting a subsidy. If people aren’t interested in going to horse racing in enough numbers, it would seem horse racing isn’t viable anymore.”
Once introduced, racino revenue soon makes up the bulk of purse money, replacing what should (handle and attendance). According to the Chicago Tribune, since Indiana went to slots in 2007, purse money has nearly tripled, while handle has declined. In short, where slots exist, the horsemen laugh all the way to the bank. Yonkers publicity director Frank Drucker (Sun-Times, 2/26/11): “The slots are the engine that drives the operation. We’d be lying if we said racing had a fan base close to what it did in its heydey.” Forced to rely on product alone – like almost every other American business – much of racing would not survive. Even in venerable NY, slots prop the industry.
Once given, the subsidy morphs to entitlement, and attempts to wean are met with indignation from the horse people (“How dare you put our people out of work!”). It – racetracks with VLTs – becomes the new normal. Illinois State Rep. Lou Lang, a slots advocate, says that “the horse-racing industry is dying on the vine.” But “dying on the vine” implies a premature end, mostly due to lack of support. This does not describe horseracing. One, racing people have been earning off the backs of enslaved horses for well over a century. And two, it is the buying public that is not adequately supporting the industry. The market has spoken.