Some say it’s a dying industry in Illinois.
On Sunday, July 6th, 2014, the Mercer County Fair in Aledo, Illinois kicked off with the harness races.
“Aledo has a long standing history in the harness racing,” says Organizer, Rita Williams. “The Mercer County Fairgrounds is on the National Register of Historic Places and we’re the second oldest county fair in the state of Illinois. They’ve been racing harness races in Mercer County ever since the late 1800s.”
But the pastime’s future is hard to see for some.
“Illinois used to be the premier place to race,” says Racer/Trainer, Dirk Simpson. “Now, we’re the last place to race.”
However, racers and trainers like Simpson say there’s a simple solution to getting the state back on track. Some states are putting slot machines in race tracks as another source of revenue, but Simpson says Illinois is lagging on legislation.
“The purses in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania… they’ve all got casinos at the race track now and they’re just flourishing,” says Simpson. “Indiana is the same way. Ohio just got them this year.”
“A lot of other states are doing very well with ‘racinos’ which already have the machines and they get a small percentage that goes to our purses which made it possible to make a living again,” adds Racer/Trainer, John Roberts.
The industry is expensive. Roberts says some people are being forced to leave their life’s work behind because there just isn’t enough interest in horse racing anymore.
“You see people who used to train horses going to get jobs in their mid-40s and it’s a pretty scary situation to change your whole life career at middle age so we’re hoping that doesn’t have to happen to all of us,” says Roberts.
“This is their livelihood,” adds Williams. “This is what they do for their job. They train year-round.”
“Each one of these guys is like owning your own sports team, you know?” says Simpson. “It’s seven days a week.”
Tracks and trainers have tried their luck in Springfield, but each session – including this most recent one – the gambling expansion bill has lost.
“It’s very tough in this state and it’s only going to get worse,” says Roberts. “The money is running out and we don’t see much relief coming from any other direction besides the possibility of slot machines.”
“I’d just like to see us on equal basis with the casinos and riverboats,” adds Simpson.
Racers and supporters hope that fair shot comes around before it’s too late. The next legislative session in Springfield begins in November 2014.