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Arlington Park favors slots over casino tax
By James Fuller | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/26/2010 12:01 AM

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Funds collected via a 3 percent tax on riverboats to help keep Illinois' racetracks in business now total about $114 million, Illinois Racing Board officials confirmed Tuesday.

And that total grows by more than $500,000 a week as racetracks continue to push for slot machines to avoid going out of business.

The tax was created in 2006, but racetracks haven't cashed in a dime of the money because riverboats have frozen their access to it through litigation. Yet the state is still collecting the tax.

Bob Lang, director of mutuels for the Illinois Racing Board, tracks the money coming in, a sum he said averages about $510,000 each week. He then cuts checks to the state's racetracks.

The tracks then must keep the money, untouched and without earning interest, in escrow accounts the tracks established pending the outcome of litigation with the riverboats.

If and when the money finally gets to the racetracks as state lawmakers intended, Arlington Park will be the biggest beneficiary.

The distribution of the funds is based on purses earned at each track in any given calendar year. Traditionally, that's always meant Arlington Park gets the largest cut, about 33 percent, because it typically has the most race dates and highest purses earned.

That comes to about $37.6 million waiting for Arlington Park that's growing by the week.

By law, the park must put 60 percent of that into boosting the purses and 40 percent into track improvements, Lang said.

Despite the pile of money, Arlington Park officials favor that tax sunsetting in favor of the track getting slot machines.

But on Monday, Kane County officials and the management of the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin teamed up to formally denounce the idea of Arlington Park getting the slots.

The two entities painted a picture of job loss, crumbling infrastructure and the death of funding assistance from the riverboat for dozens of charities in Kane County because Arlington Park could slice into the Grand Victoria's profits.

Thom Serafin, a spokesman for Arlington Park, said the Grand Victoria is just scared that Arlington Park will prove to be a superior gambling outlet.

"They must not have a lot of respect for their customers," Serafin said of Grand Victoria's fears. "Our customers wouldn't just walk away because someone opened up another facility. They've been around for 15 or 20 years. You've never heard Arlington Park complain that they're there."

Serafin said Arlington Park just wants an "equal playing field" to compete for gambling revenue. When asked if that means Grand Victoria should be allowed to race horses, Serafin said having slots at Arlington Park is about putting the apples and oranges of gambling all into an equal orchard.

"We are an economic engine, and we're happy about it," Serafin said. "A healthy Arlington Park is not just a healthy Arlington Heights, but a healthy Northwest community. We just want a chance to run our business as a business.

"Competition always breeds excellence. Let the best competitor, the best customer experience, succeed."