05/26/2006 12:00AM

Funding bill signed into law


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Legislation that could generate an estimated $36 million annually for horse racing in Illinois was signed into law Friday by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and will boost purses at Arlington Park within weeks.

The new law will take 3 percent of adjusted gross receipts from the four highest-grossing riverboat casinos in Illinois and place the money at regular intervals in the state-administered Horse Racing Equity Fund. The money will then be split between Thoroughbred (57 percent) and harness racing (43 percent), before being divided again between racetrack operators (40 percent) and purse accounts (60 percent).

The legislation is being hailed as a significant step for the racing industry, though the bill was amended in the state Senate to expire in two years, when the state may undertake a review of legalized gambling.

For now, the law sets aside existing legislation that would have given the racing industry 15 percent of adjusted gross receipts from a 10th Illinois riverboat casino, the opening of which has been delayed by licensing problems. The 15-percent provision could return after the 3 percent revenue stream expires, and racing could then make another push for ontrack slot machines.

Casino interests claim the bill is a giveaway to the racing industry, and there have been published reports of a possible lawsuit.

"There are no specific plans for that right now," said Tom Swoik executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association. "Each of the properties is assessing its position."

Swoik added that, "it seems unfair to take money away from one business and be giving it to the competition."

According to calculations made by the Illinois Racing Board, Arlington could earn $5.3 million annually in purse money alone - about a fifth of total

purses in 2005 - and the track itself also would receive additional payments of some $4.3 million. Hawthorne's fall meet would get some $2.9 million in purse money, while $2.4 million could be infused into the winter-spring National Jockey Club season.

* Another bill signed into law Friday reduces Fairmount Park's parimutuel tax rate and should save the troubled St. Louis-area track some $1.37 million per year.