Election Day is less than two weeks away, and a ballot measure that would permit betting machines on historical horse races is generating significant controversy—and warring advertisements between supporters and opponents of the measure.
Blaine County voters will help decide the fate of Proposition 1 when they go to their polling places on Nov. 6.
The measure would revive historical horse racing machines at race tracks in Idaho, so long as they had live or simulcast racing on at least eight race days each year. It would also permit them at a greyhound race track in Post Falls.
The machines display portions of randomly generated historical horse races. Bettors wager on the results, and those who bet on the first-, second- and third-place winners share the total wagers. The house culls its take as a percentage of the prizes.
A group supporting the initiative and called Save Idaho Horse Racing argues that the system uses “pari-mutuel betting,” which is permitted under Idaho law. They argue that the machines cannot operate independently from a network of other machines and bettors. A Las Vegas-style slot machine could operate independently of a network, they say.
Opponents disagree, and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office concluded in a legal analysis that sufficient murkiness exists to portend a legal challenge if Proposition 1 passes.
“There are, in sum, significant questions over whether the historical horse race wagering authorized under the proposed initiative … constitutes pari-mutuel betting,” Attorney General Lawrence Wasden wrote in his analysis. “It does appear quite possible that the initiative’s adoption will result in litigation over whether historical horse race wagering, if conducted on instant racing video terminals … is pari-mutuel gambling.”
Those machines were allowed in Idaho several years ago, but the Legislature repealed their use in 2015. Gov. Butch Otter attempted to veto the repeal, but the Idaho Supreme Court nullified his veto. The machines were shut down and Les Bois Park, a racetrack in the Treasure Valley, was also shuttered.
Now, proponents argue that voters should reauthorize the machines to breathe new life into the horse-racing business in Idaho. That would benefit job creation while generating money for the Idaho public school system, they say.
The measure would devote only 0.5 percent of revenue to the Idaho Public School Income Fund, and 1 percent would go to the Idaho State Racing Commission. At least 90 percent is awarded to bettors.
When the machines were active in 2015, the receipts equated to an approximately $600,000 contribution to the public school fund, according to proponents of the ballot measure.
“When historical racing terminals were repealed in 2015, effectively killing live horse racing, over 500 jobs were directly lost and many indirect jobs supported by the horse industry left for neighboring states,” Save Idaho Horse Racing states on its website. “Revenue from HHR terminals is important because it goes to boosting the purses that tracks like Les Bois can offer to breeders, trainers and jockeys.”
The group raised $2.07 million from Treasure Valley Racing, which ran the Les Bois Park, according to the Idaho Press newspaper. A group opposing the initiative, Idaho United Against Prop 1, has received $2.7 million in campaign contributions, including a majority from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, according to the newspaper. The tribe runs a casino in northern Idaho.
“Despite claims by promoters of this ballot initiative, Proposition 1 is all about gambling machines, not horses,” Idaho United Against Prop 1 stated on its website. “Machines are permitted to remain on 24/7 even if no racing is taking place. Prop 1 will allow these gambling machines to blanket the state.”