Legal Horse Racing Betting Under Discussion in Utah

Utah’s statehouse is set to discuss a number of important bills in coming days, one of them being SB 181 that would create the Pari-Mutuel Horse Racing Commission and legalize betting on horse races. Sponsored by Senator David Hinkins, the bill will be debated by the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee later today.

However, Utah Governor Gary Herbert has already come out publicly to say he does not support horse racing betting in Utah, that he has “serious concerns” about pari-mutuel betting and that it is his opinion that this type of betting does not add to economic prosperity.

SB 181 Background

The sponsor of SB 181 has presented it as a rural economic development bill, shying away from its more common description as a pro-gambling bill. Senator Hinkins’ argument is that horses born and raised in rural parts of Utah are being shipped to more prosperous states such as Idaho and Wyoming where live horse racing and betting is legal.

Hinkins told Utah Policy that when the horses leave the state, the effect is felt across the board from “the feed supply stores and veterinarians who support the ranchers who raise them.” He pointed out that these rural areas are already losing employment, and therefore it was important to keep the existing jobs intact.

The Senator went on to tell Deseret News that it is important to keep the economy within the state, and that the bill is a way to bring Utah’s breeders back.

“It would be a good windfall for some of these local ranchers to stay in the business,” he said.

Hinkins admits his sponsorship of the bill could be seen as a conflict of interest since he owns racehorses as do many of his friends. However, he says his mission is to improve the lot of Utah horse breeders via his gambling bill proposal.

Looking Inside Utah’s Latest Racing Betting Bill

SB 181 “creates the Pari-mutuel Horse Racing Commission and allows for pari-mutuel horse racing and wagering.”

According to the bill, Utah counties will have until the end of next year to decide whether they want to allow pari-mutuel racing and wagering within their borders. The newly formed Commission will be responsible for overseeing pari-mutuel events and applying penalties for violations.

The bill requires licensees to post a bond or other financial assurance and provides for simulcasting and advance deposit wagering (online betting). The bill also prohibits bribery, touting and wagering involving minors. It requires the identification of horses and prohibits maltreatment of animals in relation to pari-mutuel events.

Taxes generated by racing betting would remain within the counties and the state government would not get a cut.  Senator Hinkins’ argument is that, while a million dollars is a big deal for some rural counties, “it’s just a drop in the bucket for our state budget.”

Hinkins said Wyoming, which is a much smaller state than Utah, handled $500 million through their purse last year.

Rep. Mike McKell (R-Spanish Fork) has already confirmed he will be the sponsor for SB 181 in the House.

History Indicates Tough Future for Utah Sports Betting

Opinions on horse racing betting have long been polarized in Utah.

In 1926, the State Supreme Court ruled that horse racing betting is a game of skill (versus game of chance) and therefore does not contravene Utah’s Constitution which bans gambling. However, the legislature banned horse race betting in 1927 anyways and all efforts since to lift the ban have been pummeled by the opposition.

Sen. Hinkins questioned the reasons for this opposition, telling Fox13Now that “it is gambling, but it’s educated gambling, it’s not a game of chance. It takes knowledge to be able to study the horses to decide jockeys, trainers, ways to do that to make a wager on the horse.”

The question came up again in 1992 when residents were asked to vote on legalizing pari-mutuel betting. That initiative also failed after 60% of the voters voted against it. The ballot hit a nerve in a state divided by religious ideals, with the non-Mormon minority resenting the church’s attempts to impose their doctrines on public policy such as gambling. The ballot also caused tension within the church itself, with some members supporting the idea of gambling expansion in the state.

Rep. McKell points out that thousands of Utahans head up to the racetrack located outside Evanstone, Wyoming Downs to watch the races already. He believes all those spectators would be in favor of a racetrack in Utah if they were given the chance to vote again.

Utah Governor Opposes Parimutuel Betting

Governor Gary Herbert has made his opposition to the idea of legal parimutuel betting in Ohio clearly known. Recently he expressed his “serious concerns about allowing pari-mutuel betting in Utah”.  He said that instead of “growing the economic pie”, betting “merely slices it up differently.”

“It takes money, redistributes it among those in the pool (less administrative costs) and returns nothing of value,” he said in a statement. The governor’s spokesman also warned that because of how federal law manages gaming on Indian reservations, pari-mutuel betting in Utah could potentially open the door to other types of gambling that are banned under the state constitution.

Following the US Supreme Court decision in May last May, the governor issued a statement via his spokesman that made clear his position. In it, the governor said he appreciates the Supreme Court’s reaffirmation of states’ rights to regulate gambling within their borders, “a right Utah will exercise by continuing to prohibit gambling within our state.”

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