For nearly 40 years, the amount bet on horse racing in Illinois has been falling, creating a downward revenue spiral for the state’s tracks.

Illinois horse racing racinos

Horse tracks in Illinois are facing a downward spiral of revenues and purses, something they say approving racinos could fix. (Image: Crain’s Chicago Business)

Now, many in the industry are hoping that the state will consider racinos as a way to reverse this trend and bring back the big purses once seen as Illinois tracks.

In 1980, the total “handle,” or the amount bet on races, reached a peak of about $1.2 billion. Last year, that number of down to $571 million, a drop of more than 50 percent.

Handicapper Chrissy Bialek told The Chicago Sun Times that declining revenues create a cascading effect that has led to more difficulties for trainers, owners, and the tracks themselves.

“Because of our low purses, we’re not attracting those champion horses,” she said. “In Illinois, we’re really suffering.”

Low Purses Send Top Horses to Other States

At the moment, only three tracks are still open in the state: Arlington, Hawthorne, and Fairmount Park. None of the three offer any gambling, as racinos are not currently allowed in Illinois.

That’s a problem, as racinos in many other states (including neighboring Indiana) have allowed tracks to increase their purses by supplementing them with money from casinos games. That attracts higher quality horses and trainers, which brings in more bettors.

Meanwhile, states like Illinois see less interest in their races, which reduces the betting interest, further decreasing their purses and driving away championship-caliber horses that could attract larger crowds.

According to Hawthorne President Tim Carey, that cycle has seen daily purses fall to about $110,000 at his track, about half of what they could offer a decade ago.

The Illinois Racing Board and track owners are both in favor of allowing limited casino gaming at the race tracks. However, finding support in the state legislature has proven difficult.

One supported is State Senator Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills), who has introduced a bill to allow electronic gaming at race tracks annually for the past 15 years. Twice, it got as far as the governor’s desk, only to be vetoed. This year, a bill managed to pass the Illinois Senate, but has yet to receive a vote in the House.

Tracks Across the Country Face Different Challenges

The situation in Illinois is hardly unique to the racing world. While the worldwide industry is still quite lucrative, with more than $116 billion in revenue for the industry and prize money for races of nearly $3.5 billion a year, there is massive inequality when comparing areas that are flourishing with those that are not.

Issues facing these tracks can also vary. In New York, the owners of the Yonkers Raceway are actually considering moving their track away from Empire City Casino in order to free up more room for amenities related to the casino itself, an effort they hope would expand both sides of the business.

Even successful tracks are making moves to shore up their overall calendar of races. Last week, Santa Anita Park in California submitted an application for their upcoming meet season, which runs from December 26 through July, which would see stakes purses decrease by $600,000.

In that case, the plan is to keep mid-level horses at the track by cutting the stakes for marquee races in exchange for a bump in less prestigious contests. In particular, the 2018 Santa Anita Handicap will offer just $600,000 in prizes, compared to $1 million two years earlier.