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Hawthorne tries to make a pitch for casinos

Updated: November 20, 2011 8:58AM

Hawthorne Race Course President Tim Carey stopped by Tuesday to make the case for each of the state’s horse tracks — his in particular — to get its own casino.

I’d asked for the meeting, hoping in part that it would allow me to make a trip out to the track, an itch that I too rarely get a chance to scratch.

But Hawthorne doesn’t race on Tuesdays, and Carey happened to be downtown anyway to hear Gov. Pat Quinn explain to the City Club why he’s decided tracks don’t deserve or need their own casinos.

So I’ll just have to pick another day to win the Daily Double.

My real purpose, though, in wanting to talk to Carey was to get him to explain why his family’s 102-year-old ownership of Hawthorne should entitle them to a leg up on everyone else in Illinois who would like to get their hands on one of the state’s limited and therefore lucrative casino licenses.

It’s one of the big hang-ups I’ve had from the start with the whole notion of so-called “slots at tracks” or racinos, which the horse-racing industry says are necessary to save both the tracks and the underlying agribusiness they support.

As you might imagine, this led to a spirited discussion, with Carey and Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, whom Carey had craftily brought along to emphasize this issue is about more than the track owners. It’s also about the horse owners and trainers whom Campbell represents, along with all the farmers and related vendors who supply the feed and straw and such the horses need.

After years of complaining about the casinos driving them out of business, the racetracks now say the more immediate threat is from competing states that have already allowed their tracks to double as casinos.

Armed with an infusion of revenue from casino gambling, racetracks in those states are boosting their racing purses and creating an incentive for horsemen to move their operations there. That weakens the quality of racing here and consequently reduces gambler interest — all of which adds up to less revenue for Illinois tracks, and to hear them tell it, the eventual death of their industry.

“It’s just a slow spiral downward that can’t survive the pain,” Campbell said. “We’re headed for disaster.”

“Don’t do anything and you lose all these jobs,” Carey said. “Since when do we have the luxury to decide what jobs we can create and not create?”

Carey objected to my notion that giving the tracks a casino amounts to the mother of all government subsidies.

“We do not want a subsidy. We want to create jobs,” Carey said.

For those of us who have followed the horse-racing business over time — as similar arguments were made to justify off-track betting parlors and later simulcasting and eventually a share of casino profits — there’s a tiresome déjà vu quality to the debate. But until Quinn announced Monday that he would veto the gambling expansion bill approved last spring by the Legislature, in part because he believes slots at tracks would oversaturate the Chicago gambling market, this was the closest Illinois horse racing had come to getting its own casino jackpot.

My objection is nothing personal. I much prefer horse tracks to casinos, and I don’t even know the Careys. All I know is that they are in the fourth generation of making money from one form of government-sanctioned gambling monopoly and now say they need a second form of government-sanctioned gambling monopoly to revive the first.

What business couldn’t do better if it had a casino propping it up — the newspaper business coming to mind, for instance. I’m not serious about the newspapers, but I can think of plenty of struggling but worthwhile industries that employ a lot of people and could benefit from a dedicated infusion of gambling revenues.

“Who was here first? The tracks were here long before the riverboats,” argued Campbell, only convincing me this is as much or more about the gambling business than agribusiness. And unfortunately for the racetracks, casinos have a better mousetrap for capturing today’s gambling dollar.

Carey and Campbell told me they expect the Legislature in its upcoming veto session to retain casinos for tracks in any follow-up legislation to the gambling expansion bill. They also said they hold out hope Quinn is negotiable on that point, though I think he made it pretty clear that casinos at the racetracks are a non-starter for him.

Looks like I’m not the only one who’s going to have to wait for their Daily Double.

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