Lawmakers repealed pari-mutuel betting terminals last year, resulting in a slow-death of industry

Share story

BOISE — Rows of slotlike gambling machines sit in empty betting parlors at Idaho’s horse racing tracks. Employees once in charge of serving cocktails to bettors are gone, leaving hundreds of others who work in the industry fearful that they’ll be laid off too.

Once a glamorous sport in Idaho, the horse racing industry seems on track for a slow death. Last year, lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to repeal instant horse racing or pari-mutuel betting terminals. But some horsemen groups say the fight’s not over.

“We think we can change lawmakers’ minds,” said Clayton Russell with the Idaho Quarter Horse Association. “I don’t think some of them realize what they did to us last year.”

Russell says he and other horsemen groups are drafting legislation that includes a key to saving their faltering industry and preventing horse tracks from closing down live races. The goal is to finalize a bill in the upcoming weeks.

While supporters aren’t disclosing the full details of the bill, they say it includes language regarding slotlike machines known as instant horse racing that would be overseen and regulated by a state gaming commission. The commission would replace Idaho’s current lottery and horse racing boards and regulate all forms of gambling.

However, the bill’s biggest challenge will be securing a hearing at the Idaho Statehouse this legislative session.

“If there isn’t something to help support the horsemen then it’s going to be devastating,” Russell said.

Pari-mutuel betting terminals have spinning wheels, sounds and animations that mimic slot machines. Unlike the one-armed bandits, pari-mutuel betting is legal in Idaho because it pits bettors against each other and the house takes a percentage of the winnings.

Idaho lawmakers legalized the machines in 2013. But two years later, lawmakers repealed the law after many said they had been duped into approving cleverly designed slot-machines. Supporters argued that the machines were vital to sustaining the horse industry because a portion of the profits went to racing owners and breeding groups.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed the legislation in March, but the Coeur d’Alene Tribe sued the state arguing he failed to do so on time. In September, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled in the tribe’s favor, and the machines were turned off for good.

Otter said in October that he wanted the terminals reinstated but with tighter regulations. However, when Otter kicked off this year’s legislative session nearly two weeks ago, there was no mention of horse racing in his list of what he wanted addressed this year.

Otter told The Associated Press shortly after his address that his State of the State speech is for items he believes can be won.

“We haven’t got our arms around of what’s doable,” Otter said, reiterating like he did in his veto message that he wants a gaming commission that oversees, among other things, some form of instant horse racing.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, says he’s waiting to see the bill before deciding if it will receive a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

McKenzie is the chairman, but the panel includes Senate leaders such as Pro Tem President Brent Hill, Majority Leader Bart Davis and Majority Caucus Chair Todd Lakey.

In instant horse racing, bettors place wages on prior races with no identifiable information.