05/29/2002 11:00PM

Chicago track merger gains

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CHICAGO - Legislation that would ease a proposed merger between the National Jockey Club at Sportsman's Park and Hawthorne Race Course passed the Illinois state senate on Tuesday, but faces an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, where it had stalled as of Thursday.

"Hopefully it will move today," Charles Bidwill III, president of the National Jockey Club said Thursday. "We've got a shot. We've obviously got people working against us, but I'd say it's 50-50."

The bill, which is not attached to any other legislation, would allow the NJC to transfer operations to Hawthorne without losing any of the benefits it currently receives under state law. Without the bill, the NJC eventually would forfeit several important sources of revenue in the merger, including real estate tax benefits, income from OTB's and riverboat casinos, and distributed purse money that is reimbursed by the state.

It is not certain when the NJC would lose those benefits, and Bidwill said the NJC could operate at Hawthorne for at least three years even if a bill like the one introduced this week isn't passed. The NJC plans to hold its spring meet next year at Hawthorne, which sits on adjacent property, regardless of the current legislation's outcome, Bidwill said.

Talk of an NJC-Hawthorne merger has abounded since Sportsman's converted its facility into a dual-purpose auto- and horse-racing track three years ago. Ontrack attendance and handle declined at the Sportsman's meet this spring, and members of the Illinois Racing Board have continually prodded the two tracks to reach some sort of a merger agreement.