Two years have passed since thoroughbreds thundered down the homestretch at Les Bois Park racetrack.
The horses stopped coming to the state’s largest track in 2015, when the Idaho Legislature cut off a new, lucrative and — some say — industry-saving revenue source: historical horse racing wagering machines.
With its primary revenue source rendered illegal, the track’s operator, Treasure Valley Racing, said it had no choice but to cancel racing at Les Bois.
Treasure Valley Racing has leased the 63-acre racetrack and the Turf Club from Ada County since 2011. Despite the major setback, it continues to hold on to the lease, which does not expire until the end of 2020.
Now the racetrack sits idle, its carefully cultivated dirt track deteriorating and sprouting weeds. Horse owners, racing industry workers, and developers and Garden City planners who eye the Ada County-owned riverfront acreage are all asking the same question: What is Les Bois Park going to do?
Treasure Valley Racing has been asking itself the same question. Its management believes it has two options: to keep pursuing the controversial instant racing machines or throw in the towel.
“Treasure Valley residents miss summer race days at Les Bois and remain very supportive of our efforts to save the industry,” Treasure Valley Racing President John Sheldon said. “The owners remain committed to finding a way to bring live horse racing back to the Valley. We remain hopeful that someday justice will be served and we will be granted a fair hearing on how to salvage and support this iconic and multimillion-dollar industry in Idaho.”
Les Bois: Idaho horse racing’s lifeblood
Treasure Valley Racing is owned by a group of local breeders and horse owners, including rancher Harry Bettis, Idaho Timber Co. founder Larry Williams, Linda Yanke of Boise’s Yanke Machine Shop and Robert Rebholtz Jr. of Agri-Beef Co. At the time that its lease began, the track had sat empty for two years.
The company lost about $1 million annually during its first few years operating Les Bois.
When the Idaho Legislature approved historical horse racing in 2013, Treasure Valley Racing saw a chance to turn its losses into wins.
Historical racing, also known as instant racing, allows wagers to place parimutuel bets on horse races run in the past and replayed on the machines — without any identifying information that would give bettors an edge. The machines feature spinning wheels, sounds and animations, along with a small screen to display the replays.
Treasure Valley Racing bought 200 of the terminals for $2 million and installed them in the Turf Club in May 2014.
The machines proved lucrative. During the 16 months in 2014 and 2015 that they were legal and operating, bettors wagered $127.5 million, an average of nearly $2 million a week. In comparison, total live and simulcast wagering at Les Bois in 2014 and 2015 totaled just $17 million.
In 2014, which included the first seven months of historical racing, Treasure Valley Racing reported a $1.6 million loss, primarily due to the expense of purchasing and installing the new wagering machines. In 2015, which had nine months of historical racing, Treasure Valley Racing reported a $47,859 loss. If historical racing had not been repealed, Treasure Valley Racing in 2015 would have made a profit for the first time, Sheldon told the Statesman last year.
But two years after approving historical racing, lawmakers repealed it. Some claimed that they had been duped, because the historical racing machine that was described and demonstrated for legislators in 2013 was not the machine installed at three racetracks in 2014. The machines Idaho’s racetracks actually bought resemble slot machines more than video-replay devices.
With the repeal, horse racing in Ada County came to a screeching halt.
When operating, Les Bois typically runs nearly twice as many races and draws more than twice the attendance and wagers as Idaho’s other racetracks and fair races combined.
Under state law, a percentage of all wagers is redistributed to smaller tracks, which rely on Les Bois’ volume to help sustain them.
When Les Bois went dark, it had a ripple effect not only on those employed in horse racing or horse-related businesses, but also on those half-dozen smaller tracks around the state. It also hurt the Idaho Racing Commission — which is housed under the Idaho State Police, but is self-funded and facing closure.
“When push comes to shove, we all know what the elephant in the room is. We need Les Bois Park to have racing in this state,” Racing Commission Chairman Paul J. Schneider said during a July 26 commission meeting.
A similar sentiment was expressed at a meeting of statewide horse racing industry members held June 27 to discuss the future of horse racing in Idaho.
Ed McNelis is a retired banker and rancher who moderated the meeting. He said that in his travels around the state, talking to operators of the smaller tracks, breeders and racers, he learned one thing:
“It should be clear at this point that our industry cannot survive and develop without an engine like Les Bois Park.”
Offer sizzles, fizzles
One possible solution to Les Bois’ woes recently surfaced.
Participating via telephone in that June 27 racing industry meeting was Robert O. Allen from Canada. Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, he spoke up.
“I am prepared to help Idaho. I sold my racetrack in Alberta and I am prepared to invest some money,” he said. “I’ve got a pocketful of money. I am interested in investing. I think I know how to help.”
Allen told the audience he had made an offer to take over operating Les Bois Park.
Sheldon, the Treasure Valley Racing president, responded: “Our group is not interested in leasing the track at this time. We’ve told Mr. Allen that and that is where it stands.”
A couple of weeks later, during the July 26 Racing Commission meeting, Allen again phoned in and asked that a letter he sent to the commissioners be read into the record.
“Alberta Downs Inc. has made a second offer to operate Les Bois Park’s live horse racing and simulcasting,” states the letter. “To date we have had no response. We are still interested, but do not want a conflict with the track’s present leaseholder. If an agreeable compromise can be negotiated, we can start racing and wagering immediately. … We would appreciate a response as soon as possible.”
The racing commissioners concurred that Allen’s offer was a private business matter and the commission did not have the authority to intervene.
Sheldon told the Statesman that Treasure Valley Racing also refused Allen’s second offer.
“After doing our due diligence, we didn’t find the Alberta Downs offer to be a good deal for either the ownership group or more importantly, the horse racing industry in Idaho,” he told the Statesman. “Treasure Valley Racing owners are all Idahoans who care deeply about our state and protecting its horse racing heritage. We made a substantial investment in updating and improving the Les Bois facilities three to four years ago and hope to see our vision of horse racing returning to Les Bois come to fruition in the near future.”
Allen told the Statesman he owned and operated Alberta Downs for 10 years. He sold the track last year and is looking for another track to operate.
Why racing stopped at Alberta Downs is not immediately clear.
That track had 59 racing dates in 2014. According to a Feb. 18, 2015, Edmonton Sun article, Horse Racing Alberta — Alberta’s equivalent of the Idaho Racing Commission — sent Allen a letter stating it would not authorize any 2015 racing there. The article does not explain why Allen lost his racing days, but it does elaborate on a nearby newly opened track/casino with 550 slot machines.
Allen told Statesman the cancellation was “mind boggling” and he does not know why Horse Racing Alberta shut him down.
Horse Racing Alberta gave the Statesman a different account.
“While HRA enjoyed a relationship with Alberta Downs for many years, that relationship unfortunately came to an end with the sale of the Alberta Downs property,” spokesman Jeff Robillard said. “As it does with all of its member tracks, HRA worked closely with Alberta Downs, including an ongoing sharing of information.”
Allen says he is continuing his search for a new track. He told the Statesman that he is still interested in operating Les Bois Park but that he does not want to get in a fight with Treasure Valley Racing over it.
Does 2018 hold the solution?
Treasure Valley Racing’s end goal is clear, but its path to achieve it is not.
“I do not know what the future holds for Les Bois Park,” Sheldon said during the industry meeting. “I wish I could sit here and tell you we have this plan and all we’ve got to do is go A, B, C, D, E and this is going to be easy. … But it just is not going to happen that way.
“The only way we see that we fail is by quitting, and we are not going quit yet.”
Treasure Valley Racing’s 2018 lease payment is due Dec. 31. Under the lease agreement, it must give 30 days’ notice to terminate the deal. That would be due by Dec. 1, about six weeks away.
The group has not decided whether it will re-up for another year.
“We are still discussing our path forward for 2018,” Sheldon said.
What happens next year could help set that path.
The next legislative session convenes in early January, which means another shot at getting lawmakers to reinstate historical horse racing. But given the inaction the last two years, that seems a long shot.
“There is support in the Legislature for historic racing and there are a few people that are adamantly against it,” Sheldon said. “We keep working and hoping that as time goes by, the resistance will weaken and the support strengthen.”
It also will be a big election year for Idaho.
“There is going to be a sea change in politics in Idaho in 2018,” Sheldon told his industry peers in June. “You are going to have a new governor, a new treasurer, a new lieutenant governor, and you will probably see some significant retirements in both the House and the Senate.”
Sheldon said he and his partners are still vetting various 2018 candidates and have not decided which ones will earn their votes — and their campaign contributions.
He urged fellow horse racers to do the same.
“What I encourage you to do is vote. Talk to your legislators. Share with them that you support historical horse racing, if you do, that you support Les Bois Park, that you support racing in general,” he said.