Illinois Needs Leadership, Unity - by Eric Mitchell

Sometimes Thoroughbred racing’s challenges seem as entrenched as the Israeli-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

Small gains are so few and far between that they generate exaggerated enthusiasm when they do occur. The most recent example came Jan. 29 when Illinois avoided catastrophic—and likely irreversible—damage to its Thoroughbred racing industry when the legislature finally reauthorized advance deposit wagering, two days before the ADW law was set to expire.

The deal re-ups ADW for another three years, implements a 0.2% surcharge on all wagering to fund the Illinois Racing Board, and authorizes another 0.5% optional surcharge on all winning wagers that will be shared between racetracks and purse accounts. The legislature had an opportunity to approve the legislation back in November but didn’t because the Illinois racing community lacked consensus. An opportunity came and went in December because the ADW law wasn’t a priority for state leaders; they didn’t care enough about the racing industry to get it done. So the issue rolled to the edge of the cliff but thankfully avoided going over the day of Gov. Pat Quinn’s “State of the State” address, with a 47-4 approval by the state Senate and a 95-10 approval by the House.

And the reaction of IRB chairman William Berry? “I think it bodes well (for the future of Illinois racing). I believe all parties are working together and that speaks well for the industry.”

Let’s review. Industry infighting prevented the ADW legislation from being addressed months before the deadline. Once a deal was done, the legislature didn’t feel any sense of urgency to pass this legislation (and the votes weren’t even close) until two days before the deadline. And the reaction is that this all bodes well for the future of the industry?

On one hand, we should be glad it passed and avoided the slashing of live racing dates from 241 to 74. But what did the months of uncertainty cost the state of Illinois heading into breeding season? A lot, to be sure. The number of mares bred in Illinois already has been falling steadily since 2000 when it enjoyed its most recent peak of 1,315 mares. The total has since slid to 304 for 2013, and it would not be shocking to see it fall below 300 for 2014.

Just the uncertainty surrounding the ADW law’s reauthorization—regardless of whether people felt the deal would eventually get done—is all mare owners need to keep moving their stock somewhere else, to a more stable program in Indiana or to the growing program in Ohio.

Lauding the law’s eventual approval as progress is laughable and proved quickly to be false. On Jan. 31 the horsemen and IRB were at odds again over the Chicago area’s 2014 stakes schedule and the distribution of money the racetracks are entitled to “recapture” from purse accounts. When Illinois adopted full-card simulcasting in 1994, horsemen were granted a favorable split of the revenue. Because handle was being moved from in-state races to simulcast races being broadcast from other tracks, the Illinois tracks were entitled by law to “recapture” a portion of the lost revenue. This year the recapture was worth more than $13 million.

More turmoil, more uncertainty.

Illinois needs straight talk and détente. Somehow, someway, the state’s Thoroughbred industry needs a strong leader or organization to set a vision for Thoroughbred racing beyond the next legislative deadline; one that will create allies instead of adversaries, build better relationships with legislators, and start getting in front of issues instead of continually battling from the rear. Maybe a call to professional international mediator George Mitchell is in order? The ADW battle may be done, but the crisis in Illinois is far from over.

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