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Author Topic: Bill Wright and others speak on the state of Illinois racing  (Read 1016 times)
Full Member
Posts: 119

« on: December 08, 2005, 11:41:17 AM »

I just found this article on my local newspaper's website about how the Illinois horse racing scene:

(Its a month old, but I didn't see it on the USTA website, I wonder why Grin)

Barn to Wire is the only place to get reliable unbiased news, even if you have to dig through a bunch of garbage to find it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Illinois' preeminent horse industry is in decline as tracks and breeders struggle to compete with other gaming, recreational activities

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

by steve tarter

of the journal star

The Illinois horse industry, which once supplied the public with the heavy favorite in spectator sports, now finds itself a distant outsider fading away from the field.
While this may come as a surprise to those who identify Illinois with Chicago's lakefront and downstate fields of grain, Illinois is a big horse state.

There are more horses in Illinois - 219,000 - than in Kentucky, which has 150,000.

Some of those horses get more attention than others. "Unbridled Success was the number one stallion in Illinois last year. Now he's rated number three," said Dr. James Reed, a Farmington physician, of the prize steed at his Trivoli farm.

"He's 9 years old and just starting his career (as a studhorse). He's from a very popular bloodline. His father, Unbridled, won the Kentucky Derby in 1990," Reed said.

While the Kentucky Derby remains popular, the horse racing game isn't what it used to be. Tracks all over the country are feeling the pinch of casinos and lotteries as well as high-tech pressure from the Internet.

In Illinois, the impact of riverboat gambling on horse racing has been significant. On-track wagering has dropped by 40 percent since 1992, the first full year of riverboat operations.

Taxes on horse racing generated $13 million for Illinois in 2003, compared with $618 million from casino taxes. Quad City Downs in Moline closed in the mid-1990s, leaving the state with six major race tracks - five in the Chicago area.

But horse racing makes up just part of the state's horse business. Seventy percent of the state's horses don't race. They are used for recreation and in shows, according to the Horseman's Council of Illinois.

For many Illinois residents, the connection with horses is found at riding stables, like the one Don Condit and his wife, Amanda, have operated the past 42 years in Putnam.

Condit, 80, who announced plans to retire this year, will auction many of his horses and equipment on Nov. 19.

"I'm going to miss the people. We had quite a diversity of riders," he said. Many of Condit's regulars came from Chicago, some returning every year for 30 years or more to mount horses with names such as Smokey, Freckles and Apache.

"I'll miss the Girl Scout troops. They kept us busy," said Amanda Condit. The walls of the Condit horse barn are festooned with signatures of many who rode horses there.

The Illinois horse industry not only serves riders but also farmers such as Dave Menold of Dunlap, who produced 12,000 bales of hay a year. "Ninety-five percent of my customers are horse people. The horse industry is one of the best-kept secrets in Illinois," he said.

It's no secret to Richard Polhemus, owner of Doubet Seed Co. in Hanna City, which has provided feed and bedding to area horse owners for 18 years.

"I think the popularity of horses has increased in that time. A lot of people get pleasure out of riding," said Polhemus, estimating his customers come from a 30-mile area. "There aren't too many small feed stores anymore," he said.

Interest in horseback riding has motivated Kyle Ham, the mayor of Toulon, to look into developing a trail system in his county. "Stark County could develop an equestrian trail modeled after what a lot of northern states have done for snowmobiling," he said.

Ham, who also is vice president of the Heartland Partnership, plans to speak with local legislators about the program. "We'd need to design the trail with the cooperation of property owners," he said.

If Stark County becomes known as a horse county, it won't lack for history. "There used to be a lot of small race tracks in Stark County," said Bebe Groter, a Wyoming resident and lifelong horse lover.

Groter and husband Robert are judges at horsing events throughout the state. They also operate a starting gate attached to a car that takes them to state fairs all over Illinois.

Starting horse races is a tradition for Groter. "My great-grandfather William Kearns was a farmer who raced horses. He started races with a megaphone," she said.

"I like seeing people in the horse industry. There are families that grew up together," she said. But the races don't bring people out like they used to, said Groter. Many of the small tracks are gone, she said.

"I remember tracks in Griggsville, Newton, Martinsville, Paris, Henry and Princeton. It used to be you could make some money in horse racing. But now the purses just aren't there," Groter said.

Purses - the prize money provided at horse races - also concern Tex Moats, an employee of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

"We need better purses. We're losing the best horses out of the state," said Moats, who spent 35 years as a trainer, providing some of the most successful harness horses in the state.

As bureau chief of county fairs and horse racing, Moats sees an industry in trouble. "Horse racing used to be the only game in town. But today you can gamble right out of your house," said Moats, referring to Internet wagering.

But horse racing is more than just a gambling option, he said. "You've got over 35,000 jobs directly involved with horse racing in this state. It's agriculture all the way down," said Moats.

Horse racing means jobs for the state, said William Wright, a Morton resident who has owned more than 200 horses - mostly trotters - that have raced all over North America.

"I trained and raced horses for my father," said Wright, who proudly displays pictures of Classic Photo, a trotter who recently retired because of injuries. In 16 races, Classic Photo never finished out of the money, winning 10 times and finishing second or third in his other races.

While winning races is a thrill, Wright said there is more to the sport. "Every county in Illinois has horse owners, trainers and caretakers. There are also hay farmers, vets and fence builders involved," he said.

That infrastructure makes horse racing different than casino gambling, said Wright, acknowledging horse racing was in trouble in Illinois. "We need help - legislative help," he said. "Other states have made moves to shore up horse racing - installing slot machines at tracks or gaining a direct subsidy from casinos."

State Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, is sponsoring a bill to divert 3 percent of casino revenue to horse racing. "The horse industry is in major trouble in every state. But other states are helping horse racing. We're moving backwards," he said.

Molaro said his bill won't cost taxpayers. "This is not a gaming issue. This isn't a state subsidy. The money would come from the riverboats," said Molaro, who added the bill's chances of passing were "pretty slim."

Unless help comes in some form, race conditions will go from bad to worse in the state, said John Bauman, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association in Caseyville.

"The (horse racing) crisis is so bad, I don't see how Fairmount Park can stay in business another year," said Bauman, whose office is near the downstate track. "People don't go to the races. Purses go down. Trainers and owners go elsewhere. If the legislature acts, it could inject money into the purse structure and the better horses would come back."

It's not just competition from riverboats that threatens horse racing in Illinois, he said. Internet gambling also diverts money from the tracks.

Illicit off-track betting is a major problem, said Doug Holmes, manager of Landmark Recreation Center, site of the off-track betting outlet in Peoria. Peoria was the first OTB location established by the state in 1987 but it closed for three years in the 1990s when business fell because of the popularity of riverboat gambling.

"Our biggest problem is illegal betting online, and not just in Peoria. There's not an off-track facility outside of Chicago making a profit," he said.

It's not just Internet gambling sites that pay no taxes drawing money from the tracks.

Online wagering is a force to be reckoned with, said Chris Cusack of Direct Logic, a Peoria-based software firm that handles marketing and analysis for the TVG Network, the TV Guide-owned horse racing network that not only provides television coverage of horse races from all over the country but allows its customers to legally wager on those races online.

Cusack and partner Ned Barrett are responsible for driving business to the TVG site through an incentive program that alerts past users about upcoming promotions. "Their handle has increased dramatically since we've been involved," said Barrett.

Individual horse tracks could also benefit from database marketing, said Cusack. "We use their current assets to drive people to the event," he said.

But is the Illinois horse racing community ready to embrace such measures? "The horse racing industry doesn't want to change," said Wright, former president of the Illinois Harness Horseman's Association. "The racing industry's strength has become its weakness. You have all these diverse groups involved and they all have agendas. It's very difficult to get people to pull together and make changes," he said.

Yet unless changes are made, Wright feels there's a good chance Illinois horse racing could finish out of the money.

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