HINSDALE, IL – Data gathered recently from Illinois horsemen shows that the cost of putting a horse on the racetrack has increased dramatically even as money earned has dwindled. The Illinois Harness Horseman’s Association (IHHA) also says that the General Assembly’s inability to pass legislation to help horse racing grow in the Prairie State has further hurt an industry that employs nearly 30,000 people. Horsemen say that purse amounts (or income) have dropped so low that many individuals and families have been forced out of business or out of the state altogether.
IHHA President Dave McCaffrey says that general maintenance for horses has gone way up. “The price of hay alone is up 300 percent since 1995,” he said. “Grain prices have increased greatly as well. The price for hoof care and many veterinary costs has increased as much as 800 percent. The price of a new race bike has risen 1000 percent.”
McCaffrey also says that in 2011 horsemen raced for less than half of the prize money that there was 20 years ago. And that means their paychecks are smaller.
“I realize that most businesses face rising costs, but most businesses don’t encounter the inverse relationship we're having with our revenues and expenses,” he said. “The amazing thing is that our problems are all remediable. Most states that have horse racing have passed laws to help the labor intensive horse industry. Illinois hasn’t and as a result many agri-business jobs are leaving.”
The IHHA says that horsemen competing in other states like Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Delaware race for purses that are four times higher than in Illinois. Legislatures in those states have allowed race tracks to install slot machines to boost purse levels which in turn attract the best horses and horsemen in the country, many of them from Illinois.
“We’ve watched other states move forward and diversify so they can continue to aggressively compete,” said horseman Bernie Paul from Oregon, IL. “But the Illinois horse racing industry is still operating as if nothing has changed in 20 years. It’s a shame because horsemen here are losing their jobs. They’re losing their family businesses and it doesn’t have to be that way. Horseracing can be just as successful here as it is in Indiana or Pennsylvania or New York.”
In the past, the General Assembly has passed legislation to help the horse racing industry. The approach typically consists of revenue sharing where casinos allocate some of their revenue for horsemen in order to boost purses. However, the IHHA says that the money is never a sure thing and is often tied up in courts or pilfered by the cash-strapped state.
Because of the unreliability of revenue sharing with the hostile casino industry, Illinois horsemen have looked to other states to see how they have managed to grow their racing programs; programs that the IHHA says are so successful, entire horse racing families have left Illinois for greener pastures.
Horsemen say that flourishing industries in other states are the result of slot machines installed at racetracks. Those slot machines mean bigger purses which attract the best horses, and the most gamblers. The IHHA says that horsemen outside of Illinois have been able to keep up with the rising cost of living as well as the cost of putting a racehorse on the track because the purse winnings have kept pace with increasing costs.
“Horsemen out east aren’t struggling the way we are in Illinois,” said McCaffrey. “They are driving new trucks with new horse trailers. They can pay their veterinarian bills, and afford new equipment. In Illinois, we’re operating with shoestrings and bubblegum. The General Assembly and the Governor should let us modernize and compete or they will kill the entire horse racing industry in Illinois.”
The IHHA is hopeful that legislation can be worked out soon. They say that time is running short and every day states like Indiana lure more horsemen over the stateline.
“We are hemorrhaging jobs,” said McCaffrey. “In less than a year our money runs out and 30,000 people will vacate the state or be added to the unemployment rolls.”