Horse racing in jeopardy at 2010 Illinois State Fair


The Illinois Department of Agriculture got no takers when it asked companies to bid on a contract to operate harness races during the 2010 Illinois State Fair, partly because it’s taken nearly a year for the state to send out checks to the owners of horses that won races at last year’s fair.

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

Agriculture sought bids starting in late April for a vendor to operate harness racing at the 2010-2012 fairs in both Springfield and DuQuoin. The department 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,” 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.”

That started changing late last week, when horse owners began getting checks from the state to cover at least part of last year’s winnings. Brenda Watson of Fairfield, who said she was owed $9,000, received two checks from the state last week. While racing in Chicago Wednesday, Watson said, she talked to another horse owner who was owed more than $15,000.

Comptroller Dan Hynes’ office said Agriculture officials asked last week 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 when they ask for help.”

Agriculture spokesman Jeff Squibb said the state will re-bid the harness-racing 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 two fairs.

Horse owners may decide that 2010 will be a repeat of 2009 when winnings weren’t paid for months, he said. Another factor is 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.”

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

Finding a contractor to operate the races is only part of the equation. The Illinois Racing Board has to have staff members present when betting takes place, but 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.”

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 without allowing people to bet on race outcomes. The racing board is scheduled to meet later this month and could decide then whether betting will take place at the fair.

Ed Teefey, president of the Illinois Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association, said he hopes betting is allowed.

“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.”

Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527.

The starting gate

Horse owners have to pay a fee per horse in order to race horses at the Illinois and Duquoin state fairs. 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 fair dates

Illinois State Fair, Springfield: Aug. 13-22

DuQuoin State Fair: Aug. 27-Sept. 6