Illinois horse tracks, owners get $141M windfall after long court fight

2011-08-09T12:26:00Z 2011-08-11T00:21:39Z Illinois horse tracks, owners get $141M windfall after long court fightBy Kurt Erickson | kurt.erickson@lee.net pantagraph.com

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois' ailing horse racing industry received a $141 million shot in the arm Tuesday.

After nearly five years of legal wrangling that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, official say money that had been collecting in an escrow account has been released to horse tracks and horse owners.

They intend to divvy up the cash and boost payouts to winning owners in an attempt to revive the moribund business.

"We have new life," said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association. "It's going to stimulate the local horse racing community."

Marc Laino, executive director of the Illinois Racing Board, said purses could start going up quickly.

"It's all going to take shape this week," Laino said Tuesday.

At issue was a 2006 law that diverted 3 percent of the earnings of the state's four biggest casinos to the horse tracks.

The subsidy was put in place to help stop the erosion of the racing industry which has been withering in the face of competition from the casinos.

The casino companies fought the proposal, but were turned back late last week when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan denied their latest request.

Karen Bailey, director for Penn National Gaming, which operates casinos in Aurora and Joliet, said the money was released from the escrow account at midnight Monday.

Although the money appears set to be distributed to the tracks, the casinos have a separate lawsuit pending in federal court. It remained unclear Tuesday if that case would be pursued.

"We're still evaluating whether or not we go forward with that," Bailey said.

Along with the windfall, the opening last month of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines means a new revenue stream for the tracks. The 1999 law authorizing construction of the state's 10th casino requires 15 percent of all revenues to be distributed to the horse tracks. That could mean an additional $55 million in annual subsidies to the racing industry.

The horse tracks also are lobbying Gov. Pat Quinn to approve a massive expansion of gambling that includes allowing the tracks to offer slot machines to customers. Casino owners are opposed to the slots-at-tracks proposal because it could cut into their profits.

Quinn has expressed concern about the scope of the expansion, which includes five new casinos, warning that he doesn't want Illinois to become the "Las Vegas of the Midwest."

For that reason, Somone said the tracks likely will take a modest approach when boosting purses in order to make sure the $141 million last as long as possible.

"My guess is we're going to play it pretty conservatively," Somone said.

 

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