Saving the jobs of Illinois horse racing

Jack Kelly is the Executive Director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association.

Many people think of harness racing as a fast-paced, big city form of entertainment that they can live quite well without - thank you. But in the ongoing debate over whether or not to save our industry, one significant fact is generally omitted from the discussion: namely that harness racing and the horse industry in general contributes mightily to the farm economy of this state. Few farmers and rural residents probably think of their livelihoods as being tied to the horse racing industry, but they are. Illinois has more than 219,000 horses - even more than Kentucky! They are valued at $330 million and owned by 77,000 different people.

Those pastoral fields of waving grain, the tractors lum­bering down county roads, the elevators, the small town coffee shop owners and many others all have a stake in the health of horse racing. We may not think of it, but the thousands of horses that are bred, bought and raced each year in Illinois need thousands of workers to feed them, stable them, train them, shoe them and give them a host of other services.

In fact, one recent study showed that 30,000 thousand people were employed because of horse racing in this state. That translates into more than $1.3 billion dollars in goods and services. It's enormous. And don't forget the tradition of harness racing at the Illinois State Fairs in Springfield and DuQuoin along with country fairs across Illinois. The time honored and storied past of horse racing, re-popularized during the recent hit movie "Seabiscuit," sounds like a fairy tale and for many breeders, owners and trainers, the love of the sport is a fairy tale come true.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the horse industry in our state are farmers who grow hay and straw. Lee Deutsche of rural Will County farms 2,000 acres of ground with his two sons. Although they grow corn and beans on some of their land, they also produce more than 25,000 bales of hay and straw that gets shipped directly to harness racing stables. That's real money. And don't forget that for every dollar spent directly on a product, two more are spent in spin off support goods and services. Then there are the veterinarians, grain dealers, truckers, and blacksmiths who also derive substantial parts of their income from harness racing.

Many residents throughout Illinois have enjoyed the summertime pastime of harness racing while sipping a cool lemonade. Dozens of county fairs across Illinois play host to some of the greatest standardbred horses in the country. And the richest harness race in Illinois, the World Trotting Derby at the DuQuion State Fair, draws contestants from across the country. Those pounding hoof beats often translate into pounding hearts as young and old alike root their favorite horse toward the finish line.

But our industry is on life support because of relentless competition from riverboat casinos and unless we do something quickly to resuscitate it, the pain will be felt in the agri-business industry across the state.

Nearly everyone recognizes the vital part that agriculture plays in our economy. If we truly want to keep agriculture strong in our state, it's time to secure its future by helping horse racing. Various proposals are floating in Springfield to help horse racing, but unless we find a solution soon this vital part of our agribusiness economy will be gone forever. And along with it will go thousands of jobs and a tradition that is part of our culture and heritage.

We hope the General Assembly recognizes the vital importance our industry plays in the quality of your life. We hope they will work to find a solution to this problem. It's not only our future that is in jeopardy, but that of thousands of people across rural Illinois. The "stakes" couldn't be higher.

Jack Kelly is the Executive Director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association. He has worked for the association since 2001. He has a background as an accountant along with community and government relations.

The opinions and views of guest commentators are their own and may not represent those of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives or the electric co-ops of Illinois.