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Public shouldn't bet on gambling expansion
By Ashok Selvam | Daily Herald Staff

Gary Staniec of Bensenville watches races at Ringside bar and OTB in Elk Grove Village.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Joe Dugo, an Elk Grove Village resident for 50 years, watches a horse race Tuesday at Ringside OTB. Dugo said he has been following horse races since he the 1940s. He used to go to Arlington Park but has been going to the OTB because it's closer and he's made friends there.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Kristen Lord of Plainfield and Gary Moore of Campton Hills watch the races Tuesday at Ringside bar and OTB in Elk Grove Village. They work in Itasca and were happy with their horse winning in the fourth race at Fairmount.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Matt Puglise of Carpentersville pays off a bet from Gary Staniec of Bensenville Tuesday at Ringside Sports Bar and OTB.


Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/7/2009 12:02 AM

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With more than a dozen off-track betting venues operating in the Chicago area - and plans for new ones in Buffalo Grove, Villa Park and Hoffman Estates - these parlors seems to be popping up all over.

But state regulators say the growth has actually been slow and steady since Illinois' first OTB opened in Rockford in 1987.

The Illinois Racing Board controls 37 licenses to operate OTBs in Illinois and, though not all currently active, "every year we get a couple approved," board spokesman Mickey Ezzo said.

Among the biggest players is Inter-Track Partners, which alone holds 18 OTB licenses, operates facilities in North Aurora, Oakbrook Terrace and elsewhere, and is the company behind the Buffalo Grove and Hoffman Estates proposals.

Its president, Bob Bilocerkowycz, was at Hoffman Estates' village board meeting Monday when it signed off on the local OTB. He was happily surprised later to learn Buffalo Grove trustees voted the same night to allow OTBs, at least in principle, to operate in town.

"We've got a lot of support," he said.

Though his specific plan for Buffalo Grove still needs village approval, the state racing board is to vote on the Hoffman Estates plan Tuesday. Inter-Track rival Arlington Park, meanwhile, plans to open an OTB in Villa Park.

Neither company has plans to seek additional OTB licenses.

And while Bilocerkowycz believes there's room for even more in the Chicago area, getting them OK'd can be a long and contentious process.

Inter-Track worked with Hoffman Estates for three years before winning over trustees, and recently dropped a bid to open in Lake Barrington, where Bilocerkowycz lives but where residents complained about noise, and many saw it as out of character for the affluent community.

And, clearly, existing parlors have their fans, who placed nearly $460 million in total wagers in Illinois in 2008, according to the Illinois Racing Board. The state requires each OTB to return 1 percent of wagers to its county and municipality, which supporters say is a boon for communities that have had to slash budgets in the current economic downturn.

Inter-Track touts that its Hoffman Estates Saddle Room OTB could bring in $20 million in annual wagers, translating to $200,000 for the village.

Last year, Oakbrook Terrace's OTB had $49.5 million in wagers, and North Aurora's $7.4 million.

Still, OTB wagers dropped statewide by 10 percent, or $50.1 million, from 2007 to 2008, and has been in decline since 2004, when wagers were at $555 million.

And even if those numbers are going down, anti-gambling activists say it's still money that would otherwise be spent elsewhere in, and have a better effect on, the state economy.

When people gamble, "you're taking away money from the grocers, the local merchants," said Tom Grey, director of the National Coalition Against Legal Gambling.

For existing OTBs, though, the decline in wagers has them looking for new ways to get customers in and spending money.

Elk Grove Village's Ringside Bar and Grill OTB, for example, added Friday night karaoke to draw customers. Like any other business, the current economy has hurt OTBs, said co-owner Rick Cortini, who ran the establishment with his brother Phil for more than 20 years before partnering with Inter-Track to bring in off-track betting. Cortini said the indoor smoking ban also crippled business, but overall it's improved by as much as 20 percent since betting was added. Ringside tallied $9.8 million in wagers last year.

And Cortini remains sensitive about stereotypes of his clientele, whom he calls "the nicest people."

That's besides the point for those who oppose gambling on moral grounds, no matter how much money it brings in. But Bilocerkowycz counters that communities also have an obligation not to overburden their taxpayers.

Further complicating matters is a bill in Springfield that would legalize horse wagers over the Internet. The measure, sponsored by Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, passed the Senate last month.

The Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems opposes the bill. Executive Director Anita Bedell said if made into law, it would allow everyone with an Internet-enabled cell phone to place bets.

"This is a huge expansion of gambling that would bring gambling right into the home," she said.

At the same time, Bedell said the measure would pose a competitive threat to OTBs, saying there wouldn't be any need for them if bettors could use devices like iPhones and Blackberries.

Bilocerkowycz downplayed that, saying such access is available already. Other states already regulate Internet betting, and Arlington Park President Roy Arnold said Internet gambling could be positive for Arlington, but also saying nothing substituted for the live-racing experience.