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Illinois tracks hoping state delivers slots
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/25/2007 12:14 AM

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After getting nothing but coal in their stockings for the past decade or so, officials at Hawthorne Race Course and Arlington Park are hoping to get the one gift they really want this holiday season.

Slots.

With Gov. Rod Blagojevich calling a special session of the Illinois legislature this week to discuss a gaming expansion bill -- one that would include slots at the two local tracks -- the odds are steep but they're as good as they've ever been for the thoroughbred industry to get the added influx of money it believes it needs.

"Everything seems to be pointing in that direction," said Jim Miller, assistant general manager at Hawthorne. "But too many times we've had high hopes before."

And each time the proposals have died.

"It's very hard; you just have to manage you're business much more tightly," Miller said. "We're trying to compete with states -- especially immediate surrounding states -- that already have slots.

"We just had 250 horses leave for the Fair Grounds (in Louisiana). When our meet is over, a lot of them go to Oaklawn Park. These horses don't necessarily get back in spring. "(With slots), these are horses you're going to keep a lot more of or some other outfits will come in to replace them."

If their luck finally does change this year, Miller said the impact will be immediate.

"It will help with the purses to horseman," he said. "Right now we're at about $185,000 a day. That would jump to about $300,000, and that probably puts us on par with Florida racing.

"We'd have bigger fields, stronger outfits, better handle."

And a chance to kick-start the sagging industry a bit.

Miller's thinking bigger.

"One thing that should be explored is year-round racing," Miller said. "Why not? The horses will be here.

"Also, some of the money can be put into marketing the sport correctly and improving the backstretch -- more horses equals more barns."

But until something is finalized in Springfield, folks like Miller are like little kids at the top of the steps on Christmas Eve, eager to race down and see if Santa has finally delivered the goods.

"It'll be exciting if it gets done," Miller said. "We're an industry that needs help."