On Monday, May 2, the Illinois Harness Horseman’s Association decried legislation that would legalize fantasy sports gambling. The group’s announcement also states that, at the same time, lawmakers have failed to support the horse racing industry, which employs 14,000 people.
“Horsemen in Illinois are suffering at the same time that the sport is flourishing in other states,” said Illinois Harness Horseman’s Association President Marty Engel. “We’re grateful to legislators who passed gaming legislation in 2012, but Governor Pat Quinn vetoed that bill. Let me be clear, because of legislative inaction in the last four years, the industry has suffered greatly.”
Meanwhile, Illinois legislators are currently considering legalizing fantasy sports gambling. That legislation, however, will do nothing for horse racing and will grow no new jobs. Horse racing, on the other hand, is a proven job creator. One horse creates jobs for as many as 10 people over its career.
That’s because horse racing is a labour-intensive industry. Racehorses require concentrated care from the breeding process to weaning and training and all of the way through their retirement. The 16,000 jobs that have been lost since 2002 are in part a result of fewer foals being born. For example, in 2002 there were 2,409 foals born in Illinois. That number dropped to 1,390 foals in 2010, 907 foals in 2014 and 796 foals in 2015. Thousands of Illinois horsemen have left the Land of Lincoln for states with healthy horse racing industries like Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Many other local horsemen have joined the ranks of the unemployed.
“People aren’t buying Illinois racehorses anymore because of the uncertainty in the state,” said Standardbred horse breeder Rita Williams.
Horse racing states often incentivize breeding programs by offering special races and higher winnings for horses bred in-state. People don’t want to buy Illinois horses if they are going to race them in Indiana or Ohio because Illinois-bred horses can’t compete for as much money as horses bred in those respective states. Illinois also offers breeding incentives but without bigger purses from slot machines, people won’t compete here.
“It’s safer to buy Indiana or Ohio horses,” said Williams. “People aren’t certain that Springfield will act to restore our sport in Illinois. A lot of breeders are going to Indiana to breed their horses, it just makes more sense for horsemen to go to other states in which horse racing thrives.”
If legislators continue to ignore the plight of horse racing, more trainers, breeders, blacksmiths, hay and grain farmers, grooms and other industry workers will move to states like Ohio where horse racing has exploded at the same time that Illinois horse racing has imploded.
Comprehensive gambling legislation that passed out of the General Assembly in 2012 would have allowed racetracks to diversify by installing slot machines on their property where people already come to gamble. Profits would be used in part to boost purses for live racing, supporting thousands of jobs in the process.
Most other horse racing states have already installed slot machines at their racetracks, increasing their purses and leaving Illinois horse racing at a disadvantage. The high purses attract horses, trainers and drivers. Consequently, the breeding in those states flourishes. Horsemen implore legislators to tweak the current Illinois horse racing laws and allow them to compete with other horse racing states before legalizing fantasy sports betting.
“It is tempting for legislators to go after new, quick money from fantasy sports and ignore the current broken gaming landscape in Illinois,” said Engel. “But if we are serious about growing jobs and getting our state back on track, legislators should work to let horse racing prosper again. The landscape has changed but horse racing is a proven job creator. We’ve seen it succeed before and it is succeeding in other states. Let’s put these Illinoisans back to work again.”