Prop 1 aims at bringing back racing to Idaho

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You’ve probably seen the television ads about how Idaho politicians, who approved historical racing in 2013 and pulled back two years later, wiped out live racing in Idaho.

That’s not exactly true, but it’s not entirely false either. Horse racing and pari-mutuel betting is, and will continue to be allowed, in Idaho regardless of what happens to Prop 1 in November. But historical racing terminals are the cash cow that can keep live racing alive. There’s no hope for keeping the support alive without the additional money from historical racing.

Historical machines are not new. Terminals were in Idaho for two years and are legal in several states. The Wyoming Supreme Court struck down historical racing in 2006 because of their likeness to slot machines, but it was brought back in 2013.

What happens in Idaho courts are anybody’s guess. But passage of the proposition is the first hurdle. And Treasure Valley Racing, which is spearheading the campaign for passage with the help of Strategies 360, is sparing no expense to sway voters to their side. Treasure Valley Racing is headed by Robert Rebbholtz, Linda Yanke, Harry Bettis and Larry Williams.

For practical purposes, the objective of the proposal is to bring back live racing at Les Bois Park. Machines would be placed there, and Greyhound Park & Event Center in North Idaho for certain. They also could be installed at any location in Idaho that has at least eight horse racing days per year, which could put Sandy Downs of Idaho Falls in the mix if it increases its racing days.

Todd Dvorak of Strategies 360 said the historical machines would have a 90 percent payout, with part of the gains going toward education in addition to promoting live racing.

Those with Treasure Valley Racing are not looking at the machines as a money-making venture for themselves, Dvorak says. “All these folks have done well for themselves. They want to see a healthy, vibrant, thriving horse racing industry in Idaho – not just at Les Bois, but throughout the state.”

Dvorak says historical racing terminals are not slot machines. “The difference is like night and day.” Betters can pick horses in a variety of fashions, similar to betting windows at a race track, and even watch races in their entirety. As with any live track, skilled players who pay attention to racing forms and betting odds, could be quite successful playing the historical machines.

Some Idahoans, me included, have little interest in live horse racing, or playing anything that looks like slot machines. Ben Brocksome, director of government affairs for Strategies 360 and manager of the campaign for historical racing, says there are economic and cultural reasons for supporting the initiative.

“There is an impact on the economy, especially in the rural economy where there are breeders, trainers, farmers growing crops and ranchers,” Brocksome says. “There’s a layer that hits all those folks when horse racing isn’t happening. It’s hard to find good horses for rodeos if you don’t have a strong horse community. A lot of the folks hit hardest end up going out of business, or leaving the state.”

One high-profile endorsement for Prop 1 comes from Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in May’s Republican primary. He said in a letter to his supporters that he backed Prop 1 in his campaign, and “that support remains rock solid today.” He called on his supporters to vote “Yes,” and send a strong message about government overreach.

“I’ve always believed that Idaho businesses, entrepreneurs, ranchers and farmers have a better shot of success if they’re able to operate in an environment of limited government interference,” he wrote. “Three years ago, Idaho’s Legislature repealed legislation legalizing the narrow use of historical horse racing terminals. This decision dealt a devastating blow to our state’s beloved horse racing industry, eliminated hundreds of jobs and removed tens of millions of dollars from our state economy.”

Despite the wave of advertising, and high-level endorsements, it’s hard to imagine people in North Idaho being sympathetic to the desires of Treasure Valley Racing – unless there is a glimmer of hope for bringing back live racing in some form.

Next week, I’ll take a closer look at what opponents to Proposition 1 are saying.

Editor’s note: Nikeela Black, a jockey who was quoted in the original version of this column, was seriously injured in an accident at the Blackfoot track over the weekend and was taken to an Intensive Care Unit in Salt Lake City. Our thoughts are with here and her family, and we hope for a speedy recovery.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com. This column originally appeared on idahopoliticsweekly.com.

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