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Calls, emails flood Capitol as Otter considers Idaho instant-racing ban

Les Bois Park historic racing manager Andrew Christou demonstrates a historical racing machine in the Turf Club. A video of the final seconds of the horse race plays on a small screen at the bottom of the terminal. The slot-machine-like spinning reels, lights and sounds are for entertainment.
Les Bois Park historic racing manager Andrew Christou demonstrates a historical racing machine in the Turf Club. A video of the final seconds of the horse race plays on a small screen at the bottom of the terminal. The slot-machine-like spinning reels, lights and sounds are for entertainment. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Forgive the metaphor, but it’s a real horse race as to whether Gov. Butch Otter will sign or veto a ban on historical horse racing terminals passed last month by the Legislature. The contest is heading into the final turn.

Just as at the track, spectators and interested parties are turning up the noise on the homestretch. The operators of Les Bois Park in Garden City met with Otter on Wednesday to make their case for a veto.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and the governor’s office have received hundreds of calls and emails, full-page newspaper ads are running in opposition to the ban, a new “I Support Les Bois Park” website is up, and the Meridian feed and tack store owned by the son of a lawmaker who voted for the ban is receiving protests.

“I honestly never knew there was a vote,” said Simon Vander Woude of Legacy Feed and Fuel, whose father, John, is Republican House Caucus chairman. “This is a pretty busy time of year for us.”

The elder Vander Woude voted in the majority when the House approved the ban by a 49-21 tally on March 26. Simon Vander Woude said he found out about it when an irate horse owner came into the store cursing him and his employees and vowing to run him out of business.

“I don’t think that they understand,’’ he said. “My dad’s a representative, but I never talk to him about vote stuff.”

The repeal bill now on Otter’s desk would disallow some 200 historical racing machines at tracks in Idaho. The machines, approved in 2013 by many of the same legislators who voted this year to ban them, allow bettors to wager on a previously run race. But opponents now contend that the terminals are slot machines in disguise that violate the Idaho Constitution’s prohibition on slots and simulations.

The repeal legislation was put forward to legislators by the casino-operating Coeur D’Alene tribe, which has opposed pari-mutuel wagering on historical horse races.

Treasure Valley Racing, the operator of Les Bois Park and its Turf Club, took out a full-page ad in the Idaho Statesman urging Otter to veto the bill. Representatives of the track met with the governor for 30 minutes to make their case that the terminals are not slot machines, and that their industry — including live racing — would shut down if the ban is enacted.

“We obviously urged him to veto it sooner rather than later, but he said he has to analyze all the information and then he’ll make a decision,” Treasure Valley Racing President John Sheldon said.

The bill passed both houses by veto-proof majorities. But as observers noted this week, voting for a bill and voting for an override of your governor are two different things.

The governor, a rodeo fan and competitor who was named last year to the state’s Rodeo Hall of Fame, is closely identified with horses. His spokesman, Jon Hanian, said phone calls to the governor “are running overwhelmingly for a veto” while emails “are running overwhelmingly for signing.”

John Vander Woude said he tallied emails to his office after the protests began at the feed and tack store, which also sells gas and and lawn equipment. He said he sold his interest in the store to his son in 2013.

Vander Woude said he got 145 emails in favor of the repeal and 132 against.

“In all the years I’ve been in (office), I’ve never had it where somebody personally goes after a business that I have some connection to,” he said. “I’ve always supported the horse industry. ... To me this was a vote against gambling, not a vote against the horse industry.”

Sheldon said he does not condone the protests but said the issue “runs hot with a lot of people.”

“We’ve always stressed you need to be respectful of our elected officials,” Sheldon said. “It’s too bad that people are doing that.”

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