Gambling Gets a Green Light in Illinois


How’s this for luck? On March 9, Rivers Casino in Des Plaines opened its sportsbook, becoming Illinois’ first brick-and-mortar location to legally take bets on sports.

Within a week, the brand new sports betting bar had to close down, due to the coronavirus.

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Then, in early June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order that lifts a requirement in state law that anyone wanting to place mobile or internet bets had to first register, in person, at a sports wagering facility like the BetRivers SportBar.

That allowed Rivers on June 18 to become Illinois’ first online and mobile legal sports betting platform.

And come Wednesday, Rivers and all other Illinois casinos will once again be able to open their physical doors to gamblers, although with COVID-19 precautions in mind, like masks and social distancing.

The quick reversals of fortune are emblematic of the high-stakes, fast-evolving world of gambling in Illinois.

Almost exactly one year ago, Pritzker signed a law that massively expands gambling in Illinois, by authorizing six new casinos (including in Chicago, the south suburbs and Waukegan), permitting race tracks to add casinos, and allowing video gaming parlors and trucks stops to add video gaming positions.

Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero is hopeful the state gaming board will next month act on its application to become a “racino.”

“If we do it right, we’re going to have a really nice facility where you can not only focus on the horse racing and showcase maybe horse racing to a gaming fan, but at the same time maybe showcase gaming to a horse racing fan too, while helping both of the industries,” Hawthorne’s Jim Miller said.

Miller said the initial months of the coronavirus were rough for Hawthorne and for the members of the agribusiness and horse racing industries that call it home – sometimes literally: Hawthorne has 2,000 horse stalls and 330 dormitory rooms.

“A lot of those people that care for the race horses reside on the grounds of Hawthorne Race Course, so you have a track kitchen, for example. We have medical services available right on the back stretch,” Miller said.

When COVID-19 hit midway through the track’s season, racing came to a standstill – and also their earnings.

But the horses still require care.

“No matter what happens, you have to care for these animals,” Miller said. “Things were getting really tight for a lot of the horsemen, because it’s a matter of almost survival: Am I feeding myself or am I feeing my race horse? All of these people are going to choose the race horse.”

Miller said it was a “breath of fresh air” when the state permitted Hawthorne to resume races, albeit without spectators allowed.

Arlington Internal Racecourse, owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated, is set to resume racing July 23.

“When you have a facility that holds 25,000-35,000 people and it sits empty, and you just see the wind and the dust blowing throughout the grandstand, we have a very large landscape here of 326 acres and it’s just  a dust bowl, and the weeds grow real quick during the spring rains,” Arlington President Tony Petrillo said.

Petrillo said with that large of a space, outdoor social distancing is possible even for thousands of people, so Arlington is working with the state in hopes of being able to bring back visitors.

Arlington is not, however, seeking an application to add a casino.

Churchill Downs Incorporated has a controlling share in Rivers.

While Rivers is not making public information about how many people have so far signed up for its mobile betting platform, BetRivers.com’s Troy Machir said it’s popular.

The most popular wagers in Illinois these days?

Soccer, ultimate fighting and golf.

That may change as more professional sports resume.

“Football is king in this country. We’re seeing a healthy amount of Chicago Bears bets. While sports has gone away for a little bit the passion for it has not,” Machir said.

The mobile platform allows people to place bets beyond wins and loses, but also real-time wagers.

Machir said it’s like fantasy football plus.

“Betting live on a game changes everything because you can bet on will the next play that you’re watching will result in a goal, or a made basket,” Machir said. “For a lot of people who’ve become armchair quarterbacks and fantasy football managers, this gives them the best way to feel a part of the game.”

Critics of gambling say that while those bets may seem like fun and games that serve to help fatten the state’s checkbook, so many gambling opportunities will create addicts – and that will in turn not only cause social pain, but will eventually be a losing bet for Illinois’ budget.

There’s also question as to whether there’s enough demand for multiplying gambling opportunities.

“It’s going to be even more competitive for thoroughbred racing in this state, and I think in the nation at large, with the casinos coming back on line in most states, online gaming coming back on,” Petrillo said. “It’s going to be a market that’s tough to penetrate.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky


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