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Greyhound Park says it depends on instant racing machines

Greyhound Park and Event Center General Manager Doug Okuniewicz talked about the park’s new instant horse racing terminals at the facility Jan. 20, 2015, in Post Falls. (Kathy Plonka)
Greyhound Park and Event Center General Manager Doug Okuniewicz talked about the park’s new instant horse racing terminals at the facility Jan. 20, 2015, in Post Falls. (Kathy Plonka)

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 a Senate committee hearing on the repeal bill, 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. “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 randomly selected races that already have occurred. They were surprised to see the machines show up this year looking and sounding 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.

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