BOISE – When the Coeur d’Alene Tribe wanted to buy the former greyhound racetrack in Post Falls and turn it into a casino in 1998, Idaho Gov. Phil Batt said no – tribal gaming should stay on the reservation.
That restriction became state law in 2002.
Now, however, gambling on slot machine-like devices is coming to Greyhound Park, prompting some Idaho legislators to complain they were “duped” into approving the new form of betting last year.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe sees a double standard. “It’s an economic threat to the tribe, no question about it, if you have that kind of gaming,” said Bill Roden, the tribe’s Boise lobbyist. “And it’s sort of ironic that the governor said ‘No’ to us.”
The kind of gaming in question is done on machines called “Instant Racing.” They have tiny, 2-inch screens in an upper corner on which the last few seconds of one horse race after another is shown, while operators bet and video slot machine-like reels spin with symbols.
They’re considered parimutuel betting, like betting on horse races, because the risk is pooled among players around the country betting on various historical races. That concept is being challenged in court in Kentucky, however.
Some lawmakers who’ve long been averse to an expansion of gambling in Idaho anticipated a different version of betting on simulcasts of horse races – not dinging, flashing machines that encourage rapid betting.
“We’re going to wade in and see how it works in this market,” said Doug Okuniewicz, manager of Greyhound Park. “There are Indian casinos in the market, both just across the border in Washington, and south of Coeur d’Alene for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and those are full-blown gaming enterprises, they have all the accoutrements. These are not that kind of device … but to some degree, I think you’re probably hoping you have the same kind of clientele.”
Okuniewicz said he’s ordered 10 of the machines and hopes to have them up and running in May.
Last year, representatives of Idaho’s horse industry told lawmakers that betting on randomly generated broadcasts of historical horse races would be a financial savior for their industry, as betting on live horse races happens only a few months of the year. Idaho already allowed betting on “simulcasts,” or real-time broadcasts, of horse races elsewhere.
The new law authorizes the use of the historical horse race betting machines anywhere where simulcast betting is authorized. In Boise, Les Bois Park has announced plans to install 200 of the machines and expand its operating days and hours to stay open until 2 a.m. seven days a week.
Former Idaho Sen. Jim Hammond of Post Falls, now a member of Idaho’s state Racing Commission, said he doesn’t expect that to happen at Greyhound Park. “It just doesn’t compare to what’s happening in Boise,” he said. “They’re kind of the only game in town, where (in the north) there’s two well-established venues for that kind of entertainment, both out there by the airport in Airway Heights, and obviously down in Worley.”
Hammond said he supports the move. “I think those horsemen, that industry needs as much help as they can get, and I’m willing to help them out,” Hammond said.
Helo Hancock, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s legislative liaison, noted that the tribe didn’t take a position on last year’s bill. “I believe it’s pretty clear that they misrepresented what they sold the legislators last year,” he said. “If the Legislature is OK with a full-on expansion of casino gaming … there should be an open and honest discussion about it.”
House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “At this point, I’m not sure how much we can do.” He said, “We probably have buyers’ remorse from having passed the statute not knowing what exactly was involved. Shame on us for doing that.”
Currently, only three locations in Idaho have betting on simulcasts of horse races: Greyhound Park, Les Bois Park and Sandy Downs in Idaho Falls. More could open, however, if they were tied to horse racing tracks.
Four states – Kentucky, Arkansas, Oregon and Wyoming – now allow betting on “instant racing” machines.
Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky., offers full casino floors of the “instant racing” machines, and advertises on its website, “Instant Racing marked the first effort by racing interests to merge the ‘fun and flash’ of video gaming with the wagering excitement of horse racing.”
In January, Les Bois Park officials took members of the House committee on a tour and showed them two earlier generations of the machines, but not the new ones that are on order.
Okuniewicz, the Greyhound Park manager, said he hasn’t seen the machines in anything except brochures. But, he noted, “They’re trying to make them as appealing, to make the things look and play like a lot of other devices that people enjoy.”
Hammond, of the racing commission, said he doesn’t see the new machines as a competitive threat to tribal casinos, saying, “It’s pretty small potatoes compared to what they’re doing.”