The operator of Les Bois Park in Garden City hopes to revive live, simulcast and historical horse racing this summer, even though the Legislature repealed a law permitting historical-racing betting machines.
Two signs have emerged that a restoration effort is underway that would bring live racing back to Les Bois after nearly two years of absence:
▪ The operator, Treasure Valley Racing, plans to submit to the Idaho Racing Commission applications to hold live, simulcast and historical racing — also known as instant racing — this summer.
▪ The Idaho Racing Commission’s agenda for a meeting Wednesday includes a discussion of a temporary rule governing the location and operation of historical-racing terminals.
Historical-racing machines allow bettors to place wages on horse races run in the past. The races are replayed via video without identifying information. The machines have spinning wheels, sounds and animations that mimic slot machines.
Les Bois says the machines are vital. They are needed to bolster purses and offset other costs of conducting live racing, Treasure Valley Racing President John Sheldon told the Statesman on Monday.
The machines were lucrative. During the 16 months in 2014 and 2015 that they were legal and operating at Les Bois, 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.
Once historical racing got underway, live racing purses went up.
Purses awarded at Les Bois in 2012 totaled $1.3 million, with an average purse of $4,053. In 2014, the first year with historical racing revenue, Les Bois’ purses increased 72 percent to $2.3 million, with an average purse of $8,285.
The Legislature approved the machines in 2013 but changed its mind in 2015 after some lawmakers concluded the machines were effectively slot machines, which are prohibited by the Idaho Constitution.
Simulcast racing is the broadcasting of live horse races to multiple sites where bets can be placed, all in the same betting pool.
Treasure Valley Racing, which took over operations at the county-owned Les Bois in 2011, ended them on March 20, 2016, after the repeal bill passed. Gov. Butch Otter tried to veto the repeal, but his veto failed because he did not submit it to the Legislature in time.
A call to the governor’s office Monday requesting comment on the new effort was not immediately returned.
A path forward?
Sheldon said the company thinks it has found a legal way to bring back historical racing without new legislation.
“After the Legislature denied Idaho horsemen the ability to have any conversations at all about racing in 2015, we began exploring our legal and administrative options,” he told the Statesman.
In the 2016 legislative session, Idaho horse groups tried to get a bill introduced to bring back historical racing, but then-Senate State Affairs Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, would not give the bill a hearing.
Treasure Valley Racing now contends that parimutuel wagering is already allowed under existing law and that the Idaho Racing Commission already has the authority to promulgate rules and grant licenses to conduct parimutuel wagering on horse racing.
Treasure Valley Racing also says it found a precedent to support its view. In 2008, the Racing Commission approved a former Les Bois Park operator’s application to conduct virtual horse racing, which uses computer-generated animated races.
The operator, Capitol Racing, later asked the commission to drop the rule because of legislative opposition.
“When they brought forward virtual racing, which at that point was a new technological innovation in horse racing, the racing commission approved it,” Sheldon said. “It was challenged, and an independent hearing officer who conducted an investigation concluded that the racing commission had the authority to approve it by rule.”
In his Oct. 23, 2008, report, the hearing officer, Michael Kane, said the commission acted properly in approving the rule. “I further find the Racing Commission’s temporary and proposed rule is not an ‘end run’ around the Legislature,” he wrote. “The Legislature is in complete control of the process.”
Each year, the Legislature reviews all temporary rules proposed by state agencies since the previous legislative session. If lawmakers reject a rule, it does not take effect.
“We are asking the racing commission to do much the same, except our product is not virtual racing,” Sheldon said. “It is just like simulcast.”
First step: New rule
Before it submits its applications, Treasure Valley Racing wants the commission to approve a temporary rule that “addresses one of the main points that Governor Otter included in his veto message — a limit on where you can have historic racing,” Sheldon said.
Otter and some lawmakers were concerned that lack of clarity in state law about where historical racing could be conducted could lead to a proliferation of the betting terminals around the state.
Sheldon said he has not seen the temporary rule that the commission will discuss on Wednesday, but he understands that it limits historical-racing terminals to tracks that have both live and simulcast racing. Only three tracks in Idaho have received approval to offer simulcast racing: Les Bois, Sandy Downs in Idaho Falls and Greyhound Park in Coeur d’Alene.
The commission on Wednesday is expected only to discuss the temporary rule. It would have to wait until another meeting to act on it.
The commission will meet at 1:30 p.m. at Idaho State Police Headquarters, 700 S. Stratford Drive in Meridian.
If the commission approves the rule, Sheldon said Treasure Valley Racing will submit its license applications to the commission for approval, as it did in the past. If it gets its licenses, the company plans to start simulcast and historical racing in the Turf Club at Les Bois by June and to run a short live meet in June.
In 2015, Treasure Valley Racing put much of its equipment, including the 200 historical-racing terminals, up for sale. But the terminals have not been sold, according to Sheldon.
Treasure Valley Racing has kept its lease on the 63-acre racetrack and Turf Club, which are owned by Ada County.
“At the end of the day, without something similar to historic racing, horse racing is going to die in the state of Idaho,” Sheldon said. “We do not want that to happen.”