Idaho Senate Votes to Repeal Historic Horse Racing, Sends It to House of Representatives

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The historical horse racing machines look an awful lot like slot machines, according to Idaho legislators. - PATRICK SWEENEY
  • Patrick Sweeney
  • The historical horse racing machines look an awful lot like slot machines, according to Idaho legislators.

The debate on historical horse racing appeared before the Idaho Senate once again this morning as a bill to repeal the original  law allowing historical horse racing put in place two years ago makes its way to the House of Representatives.

Republican Senator Brent Hill (R-Rexburg), opened the third reading of the bill in the Senate Chambers Feb. 17 by telling a story.

"I've been to horse races all over the world," Hill said. "In London, you wear your finest to the horse races. In Boise, you wear your cowboy boots. You look at the information on each horse and jockey, you look at the track conditions and you make a bet. Then you watch and you do everything you can not to stand up and cheer for your horse as they round the final corner. You either win or you tear up your ticket. That's the way it was for 100 years."

Then Hill said that two years ago, the Idaho Legislature was introduced to a measure needed to save the horse racing industry: historical horse racing, in which people bet on races that have already happened. 

"It was my understanding that you would have your own machine, where you could watch a race that had been run in the past, you would still be provided with the information on the horse and the jockey. Then you would cheer—maybe not too loud because there's other people in the room watching other races—and you would either win, or you would tear up your ticket," Hill said.

Here, Hill's speech took a bitter turn.

"That's what I pictured," he said. "This is what I got: I walked into Les Bois and there were rows and rows of machines that looked like what I would see in Las Vegas. They had lights and spinning wheels and fruits and berries all over them, they sound like slot machines, and they act like slot machines, too."

This is the crux of the issue, and the reason why the Idaho Legislature is revisiting the permission they granted for historic horse racing two years ago. The legislators weren't expecting these betting terminals to look so much like slot machines. That violates the Idaho Constitution, Hill said, because no machines can simulate or imitate slot machine gambling.

"I sat down to one called Gold Rush, and as soon as I sat down, a cocktail waitress offered me a drink, which I declined," Hill said. He then continued to describe the rest of his experience: he put his money in ($3), and he looked for the information on the horses, the jockeys and the track conditions.

"I wanted to bet on the right horse," he said. He eventually found some information in the form of pie charts, but he said he was only given a few seconds to look at them. When the race started, Hill said it only showed the last few seconds of the race, at the finish line.

He lost all three dollars.

"This is not a sport of skill and beauty. This is a cheap game of chance. This is not horse racing," Hill said. "The only race here is to see who can push the betting button fastest. ... If we were given the full picture, we would have never approved this illegal form of gambling."

The Idaho Constitution only allows gambling in the form of the state lottery, bingo and raffle games, and pari-mutuel games—where bets are placed together in a pool, and no bets are made against the house, which is what these machines claim to fall under. After Hill's introduction, the debate was placed in the hands of the Senate to decide if the historical horse race terminals count as pari-mutuel betting, and if they should remain in the state.

One senator was concerned with losing the $2 million that taxes from the machines have brought to the state already, while another thought this was too much to manage without an existing state gambling authority to regulate it. Senator Hill said no money from the historic horse races go directly into the general fund for the state, though a small portion goes to public schools. Most of the money earned goes back into the purses for winning bets.

Sen. Marv Hagedorn (R-Meridian) told the chamber he didn't know which way to vote. He pointed out that he can install an app that makes his smartphone look like a slot machine. He also said he never understood why people wanted to vote on old horse races in the first place.

"I'm still trying to figure out what the right thing to do is," Hagedorn said. "I was convinced [passing the law] was the right thing to do two years ago."

Sen. Todd Lakey (R-Nampa) expressed the same frustration as Hill, feeling like the integrity of the lawmaking process was at stake.

"You can't sell us a horse and then deliver a pig in the mud, then tell us how good the pig in the mud is and why we should keep it," Lakey said. "This needs to be backed up. It needs to be accurate and then it can potentially move forward."

Sen. Roy Lacey (R-Pocatello) expressed concern for the struggling horse racing industry, but said these slot machine-like betting terminals aren't the way to save it.

"Woah, Nelly. I think we're putting the cart before the horse. The machines are not what we were told they were, but I also know the whole adage that you can't judge a book by its cover," said Sen. Chuck Winder (R-Boise). 

He suggested letting an ongoing investigation determine whether the machines are illegal before repealing the law. Another senator agreed and said repealing the law could deter businesses from coming to Idaho for fear of "having the rug pulled out from under them."

Ultimately, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 25-9 in favor of repealing the law to allow historic horse races. Now, the bill will travel to the Idaho House of Representatives. 

"You always lose when you bet against the House," Hill said in conclusion to the debate. "Or the Senate."