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Illinois gaming bill is about agriculture, jobs
Wednesday, June 08, 2011 - by Tony Somone, Executive Director, Illinois Harness Horseman’s Association

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Editor's Note: The following is a press release issued by Tony Somone, Executive Director of the Illinois Harness Horseman's Association. Somone feels the agricultural aspect of the Illinois gaming bill (Senate Bill 744) is often overlooked, especially in Chicago. The views contained in this release are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

Illinois has taken an important step to revive our once proud tradition of horse racing in the Prairie State. By allowing slot machines at race tracks as part of the gaming bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly, the legislature has moved to save thousands of jobs and has repositioned Illinois horse racing to once again be successful.

Other states have demonstrated time and time again that allowing slots at race tracks is a winner. Since 2005, after adding slot machines to their tracks, Indiana has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of direct race track jobs, to say nothing of the ancillary jobs that spring from the additional activity. Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York are also experiencing robust growth.

At the same time that Indiana has added employees, the number of jobs at Illinois’ racetracks has declined 40 percent. Since adding slots five years ago, the Indiana Horse Council says that they have “grown from a fledgling $294 million economic impact to a $1 billion industry for the state of Indiana.”

Many of us, at times, lose sight of the fact that Illinois is an agricultural state. Horse racing plays a major part in that agricultural portrait by employing horse breeders and trainers, hay farmers and dealers, grain dealers, farm equipment manufacturers as well as veterinarians, blacksmiths and more. The tentacles of this bill reach far and wide across the state by adding money for agriculture programs such as 4-H, county fairs and soil and water conservation programs.

Some will argue that horse racing is a dying sport. That’s simply not true. Horse racing is flourishing in other states where slot machines are allowed at the racetracks. Slots will allow us to fairly compete with those states, the quality of our racing will go up and I am certain that interest in Illinois racing will again rival any other location in North America.

While many have said that this bill will saturate the market and make Illinois the “Las Vegas of the Midwest,” these facts prove that statement wrong. Illinois currently ranks 25th in the nation in slot machines per person. If this bill is signed into law Illinois moves up to 20th. Yes, 20th in the nation for slots per person. With the new machines that this bill would add, Illinois would still have a lower ratio than our neighboring states of Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Michigan. “Las Vegas of the Midwest?” -- that is simply not true.

What would happen without slots at the tracks? Fairmont Park in Collinsville will close. I am also confident that Maywood Park in Cook County would not exist as we know it in 2012. Hawthorne, also in Cook, is in deep financial trouble and may not survive. Arlington Park is probably the most solvent of all of the tracks in Illinois, but may be only a couple years away from the same fate.

We understand the Governor has some concerns about the scope of the gaming bill. Still, he must understand that horse racing is a huge economic engine, with roughly 30,000 jobs at stake in Illinois. These are real jobs, real lives and real families. His mantra has always been “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” This piece of legislation clearly and without a doubt creates and keeps jobs in Illinois.

Let’s hope that when he takes a long, hard look at this legislation he will understand that keeping slots at the tracks is a smart bet for Illinois.

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