Appearances Matter For Idaho Historic Horse Racing Initiative

Nov 5, 2018

The grandstand at Les Bois Park in Garden City has been mostly empty for the past three years, ever since state lawmakers pulled the plug on historic horse racing in Idaho.

Without extra money from the game-fattening race purses, Treasure Valley Racing President John Sheldon says Les Bois wasn’t viable anymore.

On a recent sunny morning, he takes me on a tour of the track. Grass has reclaimed part of the dirt homestretch. People take in live music a few times a year here, but can no longer watch thoroughbreds galloping toward the finish line.

“There’s something about it that gets in your blood and you can’t get rid of it. I mean, coming out here as an owner in the morning to watch your horse work out in the morning is one of the funnest things,” Sheldon says.

He says if Proposition 1 were to pass, then the track would employ a ton of people at the height of summer racing, just as it did a few years ago.

“You know, there’s over a hundred of them that would show up extra on a race day – plus the people on the backside would show up and we’d be looking for, on a good day, 4,000 people coming out here to enjoy the races.”

The grandstand at Les Bois Park has been mostly empty for three years since Idaho lawmakers pulled the plug on historic horse racing. Treasure Valley Racing, which leases Les Bois, shut down operations, saying live horse racing wasn't viable anymore.
Credit James Dawson / Boise State Public Radio

Despite good attendance, Sheldon notes they weren’t making enough cash to funnel into prize money for winners. With historic horse racing – which is electronic gambling on races already run – average purses more than doubled.

“The horsemen especially, it provided them a light at the end of the tunnel that this is going to work, that we’re going to have purses that are large enough to make this business work,” he says.

But state lawmakers powered down historic horse racing terminals across Idaho in 2015. Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg) toured Les Bois and felt he and other legislators weren’t told the truth at the capitol when they legalized the game a couple years prior, though he personally didn’t vote for it.

“We had heard stories, but we pictured it maybe a couple of machines, like you’d see a lottery machine somewhere,” Hill says. “It was just a room full of rows and rows of these slot machines that had the wheels that turned around and the whistles that blew when you won.”

Here’s what historic horse racing is: It’s a pari-mutuel game where bettors wager on the outcome of a race that could’ve taken place years ago.

Players don’t get any identifying information about the horse’s background or its jockey.

Once they place a bet, spinning reels take up much of the screen, resembling a video slot machine. Sheldon stresses it’s not a game of chance.

Historic horse racing terminals at Les Bois Park have been stacked up throughout the ground floor of its Turf Club since the Idaho legislature banned the machines in 2015. Lawmakers said the terminals violated the state Constitution by imitating slot machines.
Credit James Dawson / Boise State Public Radio

“All the other bells and whistles, any spinning reels, anything like that, all that does is show the outcome of a race. It’s no different than other tracks had cartoons go across the tote board to show who won the race.”

But looks do matter in this case.

Idaho’s Constitution allows pari-mutuel betting, but bans most forms of gambling – or any electronic “imitation or simulation of any form of casino gambling.”

For Hill, it’s a cut and dry case.

“I challenge anybody to go into Les Bois at that time and look down those rows and say, ‘This doesn’t simulate a slot machine,’” he says.

Just to the east, neighboring Wyoming has debated what to do with historic horse racing for more than a decade.

In 2004, then-Attorney General Pat Crank wrote an opinion that outlawed the machines. Wyoming has a law that bans “gambling devices” – similar to wording in Idaho’s Constitution.

State lawmakers there eventually created a workaround that revived the machines, and with it, they hoped, the live racing industry. Crank says it was a slick PR campaign by out-of-state gambling interests that won them over.

“This is a lot more like “Get Shorty” than the movie “Seabiscuit”. It has nothing to do with horse racing,” he says.

Kentucky has also grappled with the issue. Last month, a judge there ruled historic horse racing to be legal after a long court fight because it’s a pari-mutuel game.

Treasure Valley Racing still maintains the grounds at Les Bois Park in anticipation that historic horse racing may become legal again. Even if Proposition 1 passes, the Idaho Attorney General's office says it'll likely end up in a courtroom.
Credit James Dawson / Boise State Public Radio

Funding on both sides of the Idaho campaign is definitely homegrown and the donations are steep.

Treasure Valley Racing is made up of a group of business leaders who have pumped $5.5 million into the initiative, including TV and radio ads featuring Governor Butch Otter.

They’ve also promised to donate all net profits from Les Bois to a charitable organization funding rural scholarships. Neither of the other two locations that previously operated historic horse racing terminals have made a similar promise.

Under the ballot initiative, gross revenue will be divvied up this way:

  • At least 90 percent of wagers go back to bettors
  • Half of one percent goes to the Public School Income Fund
  • The other half of one percent is split among the Idaho Racing Commission, a state breeding program, the Idaho Horse Council youth program and a pari-mutuel distribution fund to boost live racing prizes

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which owns a casino in Worley, has countered with $5.2 million of its own to try to shoot down the initiative, which could horn in on its business.

It’s not just the weight of these special interests or the will of the people – lawyers are debating its merits, too.

Should Proposition 1 pass, the Idaho Attorney General’s office says it’ll likely end up in a courtroom.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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