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Horse race machines spark debate for Idaho tribes, casinos

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)

“Instant racing” machines flash neon colors at the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls, where for as little as a quarter, people can wager on historical horse races.

Last year, the park installed the 35 machines with the goal of bringing in new business.

“Certain people enjoy this more than betting on live races,” said Doug Okuniewicz, the park’s general manager. “It’s a little slicker and more fun for people who like the electronic side of things.”

The brightly lit machines show snippets of unidentified races from the past, allowing bettors to wager on a continuous stream of horse races. Unlike simulcast betting – which the Greyhound Park also offers – there’s no 20- to 30-minute wait between races broadcast live from other locations, Okuniewicz said.

But whether the instant-racing machines are allowed under Idaho’s Constitution is a matter of debate. Earlier this month, the state’s four Indian tribes asked Gov. Butch Otter to halt the spread of the machines, saying they represented an illegal expansion of casino-style gambling in Idaho outside of Indian reservations.

The Kootenai County Prosecutor’s Office has asked the Post Falls Police Department to investigate the Greyhound Park’s machines, which could help resolve the legal question. Scot Haug, the city’s police chief, said he expects to send a report to the prosecutor within 30 to 45 days.

“We’ll take a look at how the machines work, and a careful look at what the law says,” Haug said. “We’ll talk to experts who deal with these machines.”

The Post Falls report could have statewide influence. In addition to the Greyhound Park, instant-racing machines are in use at Les Bois Park near Boise and an off-track sports bar in Idaho Falls.

Okuniewicz, the Greyhound Park manager, said the machines are a form of pari-mutuel betting on horse races, which is allowed in Idaho. In pari-mutuel betting, winners share the pool of money wagered on the race, minus fees and taxes.

Instant-racing machines were approved by Idaho lawmakers in 2013 at the urging of the state’s horse-racing industry, which said revenue from the machines would help support live-racing venues in the state.

The Greyhound Park installed its first 10 machines last summer, with the remaining 25 arriving in December. All of the machines were tested and approved by the Idaho Racing Commission, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Idaho State Police, Okuniewicz said.

He said the tribes are trying to protect their own casinos from losing revenue to other gaming operations. “I think their concerns are exclusively competitive,” he said. “There’s no basis for what they’re alleging. They want a monopoly.”

But Heather Keen, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s public information officer, said the tribes and state legislators were misled about the machines.

Instant-racing machines were portrayed as a “quaint way” to bet on races from the past, she said. Instead, “they look an awful lot like slot machines,” Keen said.

Idaho tribes offer slot machine-like betting games at their casinos, under compacts signed with the state pursuant to the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The casinos were intended to help lift tribal members out of chronic poverty, said the tribes’ letter to the governor.

The letter to the governor was signed by the chairs of the Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Shoshone-Paiute and Shoshone-Bannock tribes.

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