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Lawmakers gamble on horse racing

SPRINGFIELD -- In Illinois, the horse racing industry employs more than 30,000 people, but they could lose their jobs if lawmakers don't act fast.
SPRINGFIELD -- In Illinois, the horse racing industry employs more than 30,000 people, but they could lose their jobs if lawmakers don't act fast. WCIA-3’s Ashley Michels keeps us Connected to the Capitol.

"My family has raised horses for as long as I can remember," said Brenda Watson. "I, myself, have owned horses for 30 years. My son, he trains and drives the horses."

But Watson’s family’s future in Illinois could be short-lived. A key law which allows online betting is set to expire in January. Online betting is how the Illinois Racing Board gets most of its money.

"If they don't have that revenue they can't be at the racetrack, they can't judge," said Steve Brubaker, a lobbyist for the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association.

The Illinois Racing board could have to shutdown one of its tracks completely and cut the number of race days from about 250 to 13.

“It's the chopping block,” Brubaker said. “It's the worst case scenario."

But online betting is only part of the problem. Some other states have what are called "racinos," horse tracks with slot machines. The profits from the slots help build up cash prizes at the finish line.

"When other states have those revenues they draw away our best drivers and trainers and horses," Brubaker said.

It leaves people like Watson with no business.

"Last year the owners that we have through our stable said they didn't want to buy Illinois-breds,” she said. “We're having to go out of state and we don't want to. We want to stay here."

Watson says more than half of the industry has already packed up and headed for greener pastures.

"Illinois used to be number one in the sport of horse racing for purses and number of horses and just the best state there was to race in,” she said. “Now we're down towards the bottom. It's not lack of people wanting to do it. It's the fact that we don't have the money for them to compete for."

She says slots would solve the whole problem. Lawmakers have okayed the idea, but Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t sign it into law. He says there wasn’t enough oversight to protect against corruption. While the idea sits at the capitol, Watson and others are left hanging in the balance.

"In another 6 to 8 months we may be through racing in Illinois if we do not get the help," she said.

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