We fully understand and appreciate the passion and respect Idahoans have for the history and heritage of the horse racing industry in the Gem State.
We also understand that the industry — in Idaho and in many other states around the country — is in a survival struggle and that many livelihoods hang in the balance.
We don’t want to see the horse racing industry perish. But we also can’t support any more expenditures or initiatives involving the use of “instant horse racing” or “historical horse racing” betting machines to artificially subsidize it.
Proponents wanted the money raised by the machines to support live racing and bolster purses. Skeptics finally realized what they had signed off on, and that resulted in huge majorities in both chambers of the Idaho Legislature voting down these devices in the last session. Gov. Butch Otter’s veto of the legislation stopped the machines’ removal temporarily over the summer. But the validity of that veto was overruled in the fall of 2015 by the Idaho Supreme Court. The Legislature’s ban on the devices is law.
In our estimation, these devices are a dead-end solution in Idaho that deserve no standing going forward — not even if there is an appetite to create a gaming commission, as Gov. Otter has proposed, that might entertain some tortured process to bring them back.
A place such as Les Bois Park in Garden City should survive because there are horse racing enthusiasts in the stands who are there to watch a horse race and join in on all the peripheral and legal attractions and entertainment venues that come with it. Horse racing needs to survive — or not — on its own merits.
And that doesn’t include simulated slot machines that pretend to be something they are not. The introduction of these machines has indeed brought in revenue around the country, but in the process they have transformed some racetracks into “racinos.”
We are more drawn to the kind of thinking that Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello, espoused in an essay he wrote at the time Otter’s veto was nullified.
“It is inconceivable to think that we should allow illegal gambling in Idaho (even with restrictions) to save the horse racing industry,” said Lacey, who used to train horses. “ ... So, what can we do? The successful tracks in other states have spectators and bettors. If you fill the stands and have good horses running, it is possible to attract sponsors and donors to supplement the purses. At the last local race I attended, our stands were empty and seemed mostly just families of those competing were in attendance. The betting windows surely weren’t crowded and most of the bets I saw being placed were very small (single digits). This is not the way to sustain racing.”
Let’s change the conversation from championing illegal devices to investigating legitimate ways to keep Idaho’s horse racing industry viable. Lacey thinks more and better sponsors could be found who could contribute better purses — which would attract better horses and keep promising Idaho horses racing here instead of crossing state lines to race elsewhere. A smart, focused marketing campaign or a tax incentive should be on the table.
Lacey says he and other legislators are willing to work to revive it. The horse racing industry in Idaho should take them up on the offer.
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