The end of operations at Les Bois Park appears imminent.
Citing the Legislature’s refusal to consider restoring instant horse racing, the operator of the Garden City racetrack says it will shut the last operating piece of its business at the close of business Sunday: simulcasting TV feeds of horse races elsewhere on screens in the restaurant that overlooks the track.
The operator, Treasure Valley Racing, said in November that it would not hold live racing this year. The company was depending on revenue from instant-racing machines to prop up horse racing with larger purses, or prizes.
The Legislature approved instant racing in 2013 but repealed it last year after realizing the machines were more like slot machines than the primarily historical-racing video displays the industry had said they would be.
“Because the Senate State Affairs Committee has elected not to hear the horsemen’s gaming commission bill, and therefore we do not see a viable return of live racing to Les Bois Park, we are in the process of closing the simulcast facility and the Turf Club Bar and Grill,” Treasure Valley Racing President John Sheldon told the Idaho Statesman. The club’s 15 full- and part-time employees will lose their jobs.
Treasure Valley Racing’s decision could be the final blow for horse racing in Idaho. Racing proponents say increased competition from the Idaho Lottery, Indian casinos, online gaming and other entertainment options has led to a decline in horse racing.
The Gem County Fair Board last week decided to cancel its two horse-racing dates scheduled for April, citing lack of interest and the likelihood that they would lose money, the Emmett Messenger-Index reported.
“If Les Bois closes simulcast and doesn’t race this summer, it could be a death knell for racing,” said Idaho Racing Commission Chairman Paul J. Schneider, a longtime Boise radio talk-show host.
SIMULCAST LEGALITY QUESTIONED
Under state law, a racing operator must offer live racing if it also wants to offer pari-mutuel wagering on simulcast racing. Racing operators must apply annually to the three-member Racing Commission, a unit of the Idaho State Police, for each license.
In pari-mutuel wagering, players bet against each other in the same race and winners are paid from the wagering pool. It is the only form of betting allowed under the Idaho Constitution, which bans slot machines, simulated slot machines and simulated casino gambling.
In December, Treasure Valley Racing applied for and received a 2016 simulcast-racing license from the commission, even though it had no scheduled live racing dates for 2016. It did not apply for 2016 live-racing license.
Asked last week by the Idaho Statesman if that were allowable, Idaho Racing Commission Management Assistant Ardie Noyes said in an email: “A simulcast license applicant is required to hold a live race meet license, and must show they held live races during the prior year. Therefore, Treasure Valley Racing submitted the 2016 simulcast application in December of 2015 and was awarded a simulcast license for the calendar year of 2016.”
No license authorizing simulcasting and/or televised races shall be issued or renewed for persons that are not also licensed to conduct live race meets in the state of Idaho.”
Lawyer and lobbyist Bill Roden said the simulcast license was improperly issued and should be canceled.
“Live racing has always been a prerequisite for simulcast,” said Roden, who last year represented the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, a casino operator, when it successfully sought to repeal instant racing. “If you do not have a live race meet license for 2016, you cannot meet the statutory requirement.”
Sheldon said Treasure Valley Racing deferred to the Idaho State Racing Commission on state code.
“After being granted the license from the Racing Commission, TVR kept simulcast operations going in order to mitigate the overhead costs of keeping Les Bois Park open during this time when the future of live racing remained uncertain and the horsemen were pursuing a solution,” he said.
Gov. Butch Otter, a horseman who supports Idaho’s horse-racing industry, vetoed last year’s bill to repeal instant racing. But the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that his veto came too late to be valid. The instant-racing machines, including 200 at Les Bois and several dozen in Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, were unplugged in September, and Les Bois laid off 80 workers.
Last month, the Idaho Horse Council announced a bill to create a state gaming commission that could allow the return of instant-racing betting machines. The proposal did not gain traction.
“These folks have been led along by someone that this has hope,” Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told the Spokesman-Review then. “There really isn’t any hope for it, this year, or next year, or maybe even ever.”
LES BOIS IN LIMBO
Treasure Valley Racing is owned by a group of local race horse breeders and owners, including rancher Harry Bettis, Idaho Timber Co. founder Larry Williams, Linda Yanke of Boise’s Yanke Machine Shop, Robert Rebholtz Jr. of Agri-Beef Co., and John Sheldon.
Their company leases the 63-acre racetrack and Turf Club from Ada County. They signed a five-year lease renewal that went into effect Jan. 1. The agreement says that if instant racing is not legalized, Treasure Valley Racing will pay the county $75,000 a year but can terminate the lease with 30 days’ notice. If instant racing became legal, the rent would increase to $130,000 this year, and lease termination would require six months’ notice.
“Absent another revenue source, TVR doesn’t believe running Les Bois Park is financially viable,” Sheldon said
Treasure Valley Racing has not yet given notice of lease termination, said Larry Maneely, chief of staff for the Ada County Commission.