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Historical horse racing

Historical horse racing machines are demonstrated in December 2014 at Les Bois Park. The machines later went dark after Idaho lawmakers reversed a vote legalizing their use, concerned they too closely resembled slot machines. The matter is now up for a public vote on the November 2018 ballot.

JEROME — Scott Giltner has a lot riding on Proposition 1.

Giltner, a Jerome resident who has bred and raced horses for the past 20 years, says the way Idaho votes on a ballot initiative about historical horse racing machines could make or break his business.

“We’ve been holding on, but this’ll be the last chance,” Giltner said.

The initiative would let certain racetracks install historical horse racing machines, also known as instant racing machines, which let people bet on random horse races that have already happened. The campaign’s pitch to voters to “save Idaho horse racing” refers to the additional revenue the machines would bring in for struggling racetracks.

Unless a new track opens up, it’s unlikely that the machines themselves will come to the Magic Valley, as racing in the area is limited to fairgrounds and tracks with the machines must host races at least eight days a year to qualify. But some supporters of the ballot initiative say the boost in business for racetracks elsewhere in the state would revitalize the horse breeding industry in south-central Idaho, perhaps even drawing more breeders and trainers — and, in turn, job opportunities — to the Magic Valley.

“I think it will be excellent support for the horse racing industry,” said Rep. Fred Wood, a Republican from Burley who supports Proposition 1. “A good, vibrant horse racing industry will also support other agricultural areas, particularly with horses, such as breeding operations, etc. And all of that produces jobs.”

Meanwhile, some critics of the initiative see the proposal as a loophole in Idaho’s laws against slot machines and other forms of non-parimutuel betting, and say the horse racing industry shouldn’t receive what they see as special assistance from the state. The proposal maintains that historical horse racing falls under the category of parimutuel betting, but opponents of the initiative say they expect legal challenges if the initiative passes.

“If people don’t want to go to tracks anymore because they have other forms of entertainment, that’s an individual decision,” said Rep. Steve Hartgen, a Republican from Twin Falls who opposes Proposition 1. “I don’t think it’s our responsibility to ‘save’ an industry that can’t exist without us folks saving it... and I don’t think we should step forward and pick winners and losers just because someone wants something.”

Giltner, who breeds 10 to 12 mares a year, said he used to race his horses at Les Bois Park in Garden City, one of three parks around the state that installed the machines after the Idaho Legislature legalized instant racing in 2013. The park closed its doors following its 2015 season, after the state reversed course and banned the machines due to their perceived similarity to slot machines.

Since then, Giltner’s horses have mostly run on the Magic Valley fair circuit, where the purses are smaller and the tracks typically of lesser quality than professional parks. For the sake of his own breeding business, Giltner said he hopes Les Bois is able to reopen soon.

“If we don’t get Boise to open back up, we’ll just sell the horses off and be done,” Giltner said.

Monty Arrossa, a Shoshone native who has trained horses in Jerome, moved the bulk of his training operation to southern California after Les Bois closed in 2015. If Prop 1 passes and Les Bois opens back up, Arrossa said, he expects to move a big part of his business back to Idaho.

“The problem is right now running horses in Idaho is there’s just not much purse money for owners to run for and it’s just not economically feasible,” Arrossa said.

But Arrossa and Giltner say they expect the benefits of Prop 1 to extend beyond their personal businesses and profits for racetracks.

“This is isn’t subsidizing an industry,” Arrossa said. “This is an opportunity to help schools. This is an opportunity to boost our economy.”

Half of one percent of the gross daily receipts if the proposition passes will be put toward the Public School Income Fund. Last month, the owners of Treasure Valley Racing, which is which is funding Proposition 1, announced they would donate 100 percent of the net profits generated by their operations to a newly created foundation “dedicated to supporting education, scholarships, and health care and economic programs that serve rural families and communities all across Idaho.”

And “it’s not just racing,” Giltner added. “I think if Prop 1 passes you’ll see breeding farms take off and start moving in here. Idaho’s a pretty good place to run.”

Hartgen said he worries that something else will take off in Idaho if Prop 1 passes and is upheld through any legal challenges: non-parimutuel gambling.

“I think there’s a real possibility it would open the door to other kinds of casino gambling,” Hartgen said. “Because... then another party could come in and say ‘Hey, you’ve established off-site gambling for the horse racing industry and constitutionally, you can’t prevent me from opening it in the bar down the street.’”

A spokesperson for Cactus Pete’s, the largest casino and resort in Jackpot, Nevada — which would theoretically compete with any new gambling in southern Idaho — said the casino did not have a comment on how Proposition 1 may affect them.

Sen. Jim Patrick, a Republican from Twin Falls, said he has “no problem” with the contents of Prop 1 if it passes, but is bothered by the campaign’s marketing.

“We have a lot of horse breeders in the Magic Valley and Treasure Valley that depend on it, and I support them for sure,” Patrick said. “The ads disturb me, though.”

Patrick said he believes the campaign’s pitch to voters to “save Idaho horse racing” is misleading, as horse racing is already legal in the state. One television ad from the Committee to Save Idaho Horse Racing opened by stating: “The horses are off the track, thanks to the politicians when they killed off Idaho horse racing, along with the local jobs and school funding that racing provides.”

Voters should be aware that, while Proposition 1 may benefit the horse racing industry, it is not an initiative to legalize horse racing, Patrick said.

“I don’t have a problem with machines,” Patrick said, “as long as they are what they tell us they are.”

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