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Horse racing once upon a time held a stranglehold on legal gambling in the United States. It was legitimized as a sport in newspapers around the country everyday. The ponies even basked in the glory of the Kentucky Derby, an American sports icon.
Casino gambling, meanwhile, existed in the shadows of American life. It was there if you looked for it, relegated to the underground everywhere except Nevada. Dice, cards and slots wallowed in dark, smoke-filled back rooms, little match for the green grass, color and sunshine of horse racing.
The first nick in horse racing's armor came with the proliferation of the state-sanctioned lotteries that started in the mid-70s. Then dog racing took away fans in parts of the country, but the serious damage was inflicted by the explosive growth of riverboat and Native American casinos in the 90s.
When riverboat casino gambling legislation was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly in 1990, I vividly recall horse racing's outrage. Campaign buttons with the word "CasiNO" were circulated, while track owners and horsemen's groups organized busloads of protesters with picket signs to Springfield.
Horse racing quickly fell easy prey to the flamboyant world of casino gambling. Riverboat casinos in Illinois won over gamblers in the 90s with bright, colorful, modern facilities and aggressive, fan-friendly marketing strategies.
The fortunes of horse racing waned as the riverboats flourished. Complaints about being forced to compete "on an uneven playing field" surfaced from the racetracks. Arlington Park even shut down for a year in protest.
Illinois politicians came to racing's rescue in 1999 when they proceeded to ram-rod sweeping changes in the tax structure, including breaks that are saving track owners about $30 million a year and the passage of the Racing Equity Fund designed to provide racetracks with a percentage of the state's share of gaming taxes from the tenth casino license, which has been in legal limbo for five years.
As attractive as that proposal is to the track owners, who have waited impatiently for five years for the tenth license to be up and running, at least one executive, Arlington Park's Cliff Goodrich, has gone public to say he would be willing to forego it in exchange for slots at the track.
Horse racing in Illinois is still alive but hardly well. The casino industry, in spite of being slapped with a 2003 tax hike that forces the most successful operations to pay at the obscene rate of 70 percent, remains viable, popular and successful.
The owners and operators of venerable Sportsman's Park in Cicero, Ill., a southwest suburb of Chicago, learned a hard lesson about competition from the casino industry. They responded to the threat in 1999 by spending $60 million to convert the 70-year-old horseracing landmark into a motor racing venue.
The result was a disaster. Hopelessly mired in debt, the facility closed its doors for the last time in 2002 and was purchased by the town of Cicero that has yet to announce development plans for the property.
The Sportsman's owners took a gamble and lost big time. Rather than weather the raging casino storm, they elected to throw the dice on the racetrack's future and "sevened out". The owners of the other Chicago-area tracks, meanwhile, are resigned to their fate: If you can't beat 'em join, 'em. They're impatient as thoroughbreds waiting for the slot machine starting gate to spring open.
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at email@example.com.
John G. Brokopp