Horse racing could be coming back to the Quad City Downs bringing hundreds of jobs and tax revenue for the city of East Moline.
Senate Bill 1849 would legalize five new casinos in Illinois and six "racinos," including one at the Quad City Downs, which has not seen harness racing since the early 1990s.
The bill would allow 350 slot machines at the Quad City Downs and a portion of the revenue would have to be used to be provide prize money for 240 harness races a year at the race track.
David McCaffrey, a Davenport native and president of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association, said the association envisions a shorter season than held here previously. It likely would run June through August or September with racing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. He would expect about 10 races per night with purses substantially higher than when the Downs was open before. The rest of the year, the track would be open for slots and live off-track betting.
Mr. McCaffrey, who at one time trained horses at the Downs but now trains in Chicago and Delaware, said one of the problems 20 years ago was they raced too often and diluted the product, recalling that races ran five nights a week from March to October. But, he said, the slot machines are needed to fund the purses that will draw the horsemen, as well as fund improvements to the facility.
He said there still is plenty of land to accommodate new receiving barns and the track is in good shape and could be made race-ready in a few days. "But the grandstand and facility need massive improvements, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions," he said.
Churchill Downs Inc., which owns the Quad City Downs, supports the bill, as does the IHHA. But the politics surrounding the proposed legislation are complicated.
In the past, Gov. Pat Quinn has threatened to veto legislation that would allow "racinos" and the Illinois Casino Gaming Association also has reservations about an expansion of gambling that could cannibalize the profits of the 10 existing casinos in Illinois.
The governor would prefer the gaming bill to include just five new casinos, instead of 11, and wants a ban on campaign contributions from casino interests included in any bill, an official at his office said.
"Any gaming talk right now is just a complete distraction from the real and large fiscal problems that Illinois faces," said Gov. Quinn's press secretary Brooke Anderson on Friday.
Locally, state lawmakers have concerns about the impact slots at the Quad City Downs could have on Jumer's Casino & Hotel in Rock Island.
"We have to be careful we don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg," said State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline. Still, Sen. Jacobs said he likely would support SB 1849 as it would generate jobs and investment for East Moline.
Sen. Jacobs' father, Denny Jacobs, is registered as a lobbyist for Jumer's Casino. Mr. Jacobs said the owners of Jumer's have no position on the gambling expansion bill and are waiting to see what lawmakers do with the legislation, which could be called for a vote before the General Assembly's spring session ends on May 31.
Bill Renk, a spokesman for Jumer's, added, "At this point, history tells us to really sit back and wait and see what happens."
The Quad-Cities market is at risk of being saturated by casinos, Mr. Jacobs cautioned. The current bill would allow an initial 350 slots at the Quad City Downs, but the number could rise to a maximum of 900 in future years.
If the number stayed at the low end, Mr. Jacobs said, the market could sustain the slots without hurting the other local casinos, but he would be worried about the impact 900 slots could have.
"This could be a win-win for everybody, but it also could be a bad deal for everybody," Mr. Jacobs said.
Tony Petrillo, senior vice president with Churchill Downs in Chicago, wants to bring slots and horse racing back to the Quad City Downs, he said, and would like to see SB 1849 passed if it includes provisions to make that happen.
The slots would generate tax revenue for Rock Island County and East Moline and would also would require Churchill Downs to invest in the Downs and create jobs, Mr. Petrillo said.
State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, has changed his position on legislation that would expand gambling to include slots at the tracks.
"Originally, I was not supporting it because of competition with Jumer's," he said.
But as the state and local governments continue to face severe financial challenges, he said he has changed his mind about a bill that would bring in money and support employment.
State Rep. Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, also is conflicted on the bill but does support it. He's personally opposed to gambling but, as a farmer, understands the boost it could provide for agriculture.
"I remember the glory days of the Downs, even though I've never stepped inside of it because it's not part of my lifestyle," he said. "I know my hired hand is excited about what it could do for the hay market."
Mr. McCaffrey, of the horsemen's association, said he fell in love with the sport at the Downs and is eager to see horses return to the track. He's confident the proposed 350 slots would be sufficient to generate lucrative prize money for races, which would be key to attracting quality horses and crowds.
Today is Friday, May 24, the 144th day of 2013. There are 221 days left in the year. 1863 -- 150 years ago: A military escort will be at the square at 9 a.m. tomorrow forthe funeral of Lieut. Joseph Eaton. The county judge is absent in Chicago, which willaccount for his not being in the procession. 1888 -- 125 years ago: Rock Island's City Council last night appropriated $95,000 forexpenses for the 1888 and 1889 fiscal year. 1913 -- 100 years ago: Mrs. F.W. Reimers last night was re-elected president of the RockIsland Musical Club at a meeting in the New Harper Hotel. 1938 -- 75 years ago: Seven members of Boy Scout Troop 21 got their Eagle badges lastnight. They were Ralph Hurt, Robert Nelson, Howard Schersten, Cecil Nelson, RobertFryxell, Clarence Stone and Rollin Hurt. 1963 -- 50 years ago: Mayor Morris Muhleman has resorted to a form letter in an effort toanswer objections to the wheel tax increase. "It was my hope that I could, in some way,restore the faith of the citizens in our city. In order to do this I knew I must face the factthat I would become very unpopular."All they are trying to do is protect the citizensproperty and build their town. 1988 -- 25 years ago: RICCA, the Rock Island County Council on Addictions, inconjunction with the Quad City Downs, will hold its annual "Night at the Races" June 2.The benefit "Night at the Races" will raise funds locally to assist in maintaining the twohalfway houses, New Hope Lodge (for women) and Beacon House (for men).