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Racetrack owners make push for slot machines
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Should the state allow one-arm bandits at racetracks like Arlington Park in addition to thoroughbreds?


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/2/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/2/2009 2:28 PM

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Racetrack owners stepped up Tuesday with yet another push to bring slot machines to their parks, arguing they could rake in the cash that many suburbs are leaving on the table as they turn their noses up at legalized video gambling.

But justification for the expansion was quickly undercut Tuesday when government forecasters said funding for Gov. Pat Quinn's $31 billion public works package remains stable even though about 40 jurisdictions have already opted out of the so-called video poker legalization.

"No change is needed," said government analyst Eric Noggle about the package's reliance on as many as 45,000 video gambling machines bringing in up to $534 million a year.

Yet, Noggle did say the estimates "may need to be revisited" if towns continue to opt out.

That unknown factor is what racetrack officials, including those at Arlington Park, hope to use to finally convince lawmakers to bring 1,200 or more slot machines into each of their facilities, essentially making them casinos. The proposal has been floated countless times before, but has always failed to gain enough support.

"This is the solution," said former state Rep. Robert Molaro of Chicago, a longtime horse racing supporter who is now lobbying for Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero.

Molaro said adding the slot machines at the state's five existing racetracks and one that is currently shuttered could bring in up to $200 million.

Arlington Park President Roy Arnold said Tuesday the addition of slot machines would allow his track to dramatically raise race winnings, drawing better horses and more betting to pull the industry out of a downward spiral.

Track owners attempted to sell the idea as not an expansion of gambling because lawmakers essentially legalized an unlimited number of slot machines last year when they decided every bar, club, truck stop and liquor-pouring restaurant in Illinois could have five each.

"You changed the rules of the game," Hawthorne Race Course President Tim Carey told a panel of lawmakers delving into the video gambling plan Tuesday after his news conference.

Now it is clear many establishments that can have machines won't, especially in the dozens of communities that have already opted out, including unincorporated areas of DuPage, McHenry, Lake and Cook counties.

Given that, Carey said "it doesn't make any sense" to hold racetracks back from having their own.

The video gambling machines allowed to fund construction could be up and running in about a year.

Meanwhile, the state's gambling industry - on which lawmakers rely for as much as $1 billion in revenue annually - is tumbling. Government forecasters told lawmakers Tuesday that the state's smoking ban and the economy have sent revenue losses at the state's nine casinos down 18 percent overall, and about 11 percent at the four suburban casinos in Elgin, Aurora and Joliet.