Jockey hopes voters will bring back racing in Idaho

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As a female jockey, Nikeela Black of the small town of Greenleaf has experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of being kicked in the teeth and bucked off a horse.

She knows all about separated shoulders, injured ankles and broken bones that are part of the hazards of the sport.

Yet, she can hardly wait to do it all again at Les Bois Park in Garden City. A lawyer by profession, Black says she misses the enthusiastic crowds that gathered at the track on race days.

But before she can hear that familiar call of “riders up,” Idaho voters must approve Proposition 1, which will bring back historical racing machines to Les Bois Park. The machines are the cash cow that are the difference between life and death of horse racing in Idaho.

You’ve probably seen the television ads about how the 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. Horse racing and pari-mutual betting will continue to be allowed regardless of what happens to Prop 1. But there’s little hope for survival of horse racing without revenue 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 is 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.”

Despite the wave of advertising, 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.

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

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