With the Idaho Secretary of State’s office announcing that it’s likely a ballot initiative authorizing “historical” or “instant racing” will go before voters in November, a former local instant racing parlor owner and racing organizer sees hope for new life in Idaho’s horse racing industry.
In 2013, the Idaho Legislature authorized the use of machines at tracks used to bet on the outcome of previously run horse races. But after they saw the machines that were installed, which from a user’s perspective bear a stronger resemblance to slot machines than off-track betting terminals, for example, they moved to repeal the law.
“We have a constitution that prohibits gambling except under certain circumstances,” said Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, a vocal opponent of instant racing. “It quacks like a slot machine and it acts like a slot machine.”
Idaho’s premier racing venue, Les Bois Park, shuttered its doors in 2015 following the repeal of instant racing. Despite periodic efforts to reopen, its owners haven’t found a way to make the track profitable without instant racing revenue, the Idaho Statesman reported last year.
Melissa Bernard, co-owner of the former Double Down Betting Sports Bar and Grill, which hosted instant racing machines in Idaho Falls until it was forced to close, said the only way for Idaho horse racing to have a future is with the injection of funds from instant racing. With the closure of Les Bois, she said, thoroughbred racing is now “practically nonexistent” in the Gem State, and quarterhorse races such as the Bitterroot Futurity, currently being run at Sandy Downs, are endangered.
Horse racing interests funded an effort to raise signatures to authorize a ballot initiative, and recently the Associated Press reported that Secretary of State Lawerence Denney is confident enough signatures were gathered that question will appear on the November ballot.
“I’m fine with that,” Hill said. “That’s the way the system is supposed to work.”
Funds from instant racing could be used to subsidize breeders by running races in which only Idaho-bred horses can run, Bernard argued. Without an Idaho-bred racing incentive Idaho breeders have begun to pick up stakes and move.
“A lot of horses have left the state,” Bernard said. “Owners, money, people are having to go other places to raise their horses. People are going to run where the purses are the best.”
Many owners she knows have left for Wyoming, Bernard said, which has an instant racing-financed purse system for Wyoming-bred horses. If you run your breeding stable in Wyoming, she said, you can expect a better price for your horses, since they will be able to compete for those purses.
“It not only helps people who are running operations at the track, it helps employ people who are breeding horses,” she said. “The economics of horse racing are far-reaching.”
Bernard argues the state cannibalized horse racing’s revenue stream by first authorizing a state lottery and then tribal gaming.
“Horse racing existed first in Idaho, then came the lottery, then came tribal gaming,” she said. “Idaho, by virtue of passing the lottery and tribal gaming, harmed horse racing.”
There isn’t much evidence that lotteries and tribal gaming harm horse racing, which has been in a long-term decline nationwide.
A 2008 study of competition between gaming industries, after examining data from all 50 states, found that lotteries, casino gambling in general and tribal casino gambling in particular all tended to slightly increase the overall horse racing “handle” — the total amount of money bet on races by spectators.
But the study also noted that horse racing handles are on a long-term declining trajectory, driven by declining interest in betting on horse racing. (Since the study came out, handles have begun to improve slightly along with the economy, as Blood-Horse Magazine reported.)