State fair harness racing in doubt

Doug Finke

Harness racing is a traditional part of the Illinois State Fair, and pari-mutuel betting has been part of those races for the past two decades.

But the Illinois Department of Agriculture got no takers when it asked companies to bid on a contract to operate harness races in Springfield and DuQuoin during state fairs this year.

And the executive director of the Illinois Racing Board said he's talked with department officials about the idea of having harness racing at this year's fair, but without pari-mutuel betting.

The agriculture department sought bids starting in late April for a vendor to operate harness racing at both Springfield and DuQuoin for the 2010-2012 fairs. It got no response, including from Balmoral-Maywood, the Chicago-area tracks that have run the races for the past several years.

Jack Kelly, a director at the tracks, said a big problem was that horse owners still hadn't been paid their winnings from the 2009 state fair.

"One of our concerns was that the horsemen haven't been paid; who's going to enter?" Kelly said. "We're going to bring (equipment) down there and have two races a day. We didn't want to be locked into something that all of a sudden was not going to happen because it was out of our control."

That started changing late last week when the horse owners started getting checks from the state to cover last year's winnings. Or at least part of the winnings.

Brenda Watson of Fairfield said she was owed $9,000 and got two checks from the state last week. While racing in Chicago on Wednesday, Watson said, she talked to one horse owner who was owed more than $15,000.

Comptroller Dan Hynes' office said Department of Agriculture officials last week asked that nearly $17 million be directed to clearing up old bills, some of which date to July.

"They have some of the oldest vouchers in the system," said Hynes' spokeswoman Carol Knowles. "We try to work with agencies to try to assist when they ask for help."

Agriculture department spokesman Jeff Squibb said the state is going to re-bid the contract to see if anyone will make an offer to run the races.

With horse owners getting some of their prize money, Kelly said Balmoral will "reassess" the situation. That includes talking with horse owners and their various associations about how much interest there is in racing at the fairs. Horse owners may decide that 2010 will be a repeat of 2009 when winnings weren't paid for months.

There's also issues that purses in other states are bigger than those in Illinois, making Illinois a less attractive place to race.

"We have to get a sense there would be enough horses to enter down there," Kelly said. "We'd also have to talk to the state about how they are going to pay us next year."

Watson, for one, said she normally brings 10 horses to the state fair to race. This year, she's only planning to race one.

Finding a contractor to run the races is only part of the equation. The Illinois Racing Board has to have staff present when pari-mutuel betting takes place. The board is facing its own budget problems and laid off 16 field and office staff in March.

"Pari-mutuel taxes no longer cover the cost of regulation," said Racing Board Executive Director Marc Laino. "Racing has been in such a decline. The handle is half of where it was 15 years ago. Revenue follows handles."

Consequently, the board may not have the resources to staff the fair. Laino said the board has talked of ways to cut its costs at the fair races, but more than that may be needed.

"We've been in discussion with the department. There's been discussion of a non-pari-mutuel meet," he said.

In other words, there could be harness racing, but people couldn't bet on the outcome. The racing board is scheduled to meet later this month and could decide at that time if betting will go on at the fair.

Ed Teefey, president of the Illinois Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association, said he hopes that won't be the case.

"It just adds a whole lot of excitement to the sport," Teefey said. "You go to the fair and bet a couple of dollars. It increases the enthusiasm of the crowd immensely. I think the crowds will be way down, I think the enthusiasm will be down if we don't have pari-mutuel wagering."

At a glance

Horse owners have to pay a fee per horse for the opportunity to race horses at the state fair. Here's the number of horses for which fees have been paid the past three years, according to the Department of Agriculture.

2010: 398

2009: 507

2008: 620

State Capitol Bureau writer Doug Finke can be reached at