BOISE – The manager of the Greyhound Park Event Center in Post Falls told Idaho lawmakers Monday that the park will shut down if they repeal the law that allowed slot machine-like “instant racing” terminals to be installed there last spring.
“I don’t see any other future for the location, other than some sort of retail,” Doug Okuniewicz said after the hearing, which will continue on Wednesday. “We’ve been operating at a loss for years. … with the hope that one day we could get legislative approval to expand gaming and … maybe keep the place kicking.”
The Greyhound Park, which Okuniewicz said employs about 15 people, opened in 1988 for live greyhound racing, but that ended in 1995 after allegations of abuse of dogs, and big financial losses at the track, which at its peak employed 200 people. In 1996, Idaho lawmakers outlawed dog racing, saying it was a mistake to approve it in the first place, but the park was “grandfathered in” and allowed to continue to conduct betting on simulcasts, or broadcasts of races conducted elsewhere.
In 1998, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe wanted to buy the park and turn it into a casino, but then-Gov. Phil Batt said no, saying gaming should remain on tribal reservations.
Okuniewicz said the Greyhound Park, which also hosts events, has struggled. “We haven’t been profitable for seven to 10 years,” he said. He said, “It’s a single-purpose kind of building. It was built specifically for racing.”
Recently, he said, “It’s been less and less of a going concern each year.”
Betting on simulcasts of races was initially enough to keep the park in the black, he said. “But the simulcasting business has been eroded over the years, for a number of reasons, one being that you can now gamble on the Internet.” The other, he said, is competition from other gambling options, including tribal casinos.
Idaho lawmakers in 2013 voted to allow betting on “historical horse racing,” defined as similar to simulcasts but involving races that already have occurred. They were surprised to see the machines show up this year, looking and acting like slot machines.
Now, the Legislature is holding a hearing on new legislation to repeal the 2013 law; SB 1011 was proposed by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Helo Hancock, legislative affairs liaison for the tribe, showed the Senate State Affairs Committee videos of the machines now in use. In the videos, the player pushed a button, music played and cherries spun, and the player won or lost; then the process was repeated.
“You can be paid without even picking a horse,” he said. “The machines we see today at the racinos in Idaho are not what were presented to the Idaho Legislature two years ago. They’re not legal, and they must be stopped.”
Backers of Idaho’s horse racing industry filled the hearing to oppose the bill; a share of the proceeds goes to prop up the dwindling industry.
Famed Idaho jockey Gary Stevens was among those speaking. He won his first race at Boise’s Les Bois Park at the age of 16, and went on to become one of the most successful jockeys in history, as well as an actor and sports commentator.
“I do not want Les Bois Park to stand vacant,” Stevens told the senators. “There will not be another Gary Stevens come out of Idaho without the opportunity given to Les Bois Park in these historical racing machines, I guarantee that to you today.” He said, “After only six months of operation at Les Bois Park we’re beginning to see how it is providing economic relief. … Historical horse racing will save live racing and the industry in Idaho.”
Jim Bernard, who operates the Double Down Betting Bar in Idaho Falls, one of three locations in Idaho now offering the “instant racing” machines, said it allows him to compete with the nearby Shoshone-Bannock Tribes casino on their reservation. “With those guys functioning 900 machines just down from me, of course, we give people options,” he said. “I think we at least deserve a fair opportunity to compete for these dollars.”
Nathan Small, chairman of the Sho-Bans’ Fort Hall Business Council, told the senators, “When Idaho was considering tribal gaming, there were years of discussion, years … and lots of public input. … When this decision was ultimately made to have limited operations and confine it to the reservations in Idaho, it was done with the knowledge that every interest group had adequate and multiple opportunities to be heard. In the case of instant racing, it doesn’t appear that that was done.”
He said, “We are heavily regulated. We are required also to do background checks for our employees in our gaming operation,” and prohibited by their compact with the state from using a vendor to operate their gaming. “It does not appear to me that there is anywhere close to this type of regulations on these instant racing casinos,” he said.
Small noted that the chief regulator of instant racing in Idaho, former state Racing Commission Executive Director Frank Lamb, abruptly resigned this month after news surfaced that he’d been a paid lobbyist for a company operating instant racing machines in Wyoming while regulating them here in Idaho. “When you do a background check, you find out these kinds of things,” he said.
Okuniewicz told the senators, “A repeal is awfully Draconian. … That hole can’t be filled in any other way. There are ways to address games and those sorts of things without going to the extent of repealing the bill. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
He said, “Without it, the industry is just not going to make it.”
The committee will continue its hearing on Wednesday morning; Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said only about half of those who had signed up to speak had gotten to on Monday morning. McKenzie said the panel likely will vote on the bill on Wednesday.
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