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Law Mandates Better Housing at Tracks
The law forces tracks to improve conditions for the low-wage employees and their families who live and work on the "backstretch," the area near the stables.
The requirement is part of an amendment to the Illinois Horse Racing Act of 1975 that allows all state tracks and betting parlors to broadcast horse races from around the world, luring bettors with more races and prizes.
"We think (the law) goes a long way to keeping horse racing competitive, given the condition that no new riverboats are added," Edgar spokesman Mike Lawrence said.
The bill, drafted by the Governor's Task Force on Horse Racing in Illinois, requires that tracks spend more money from the Racetrack Improvement Fund on the backstretch, to improve conditions on the backstretch.
The fund comes from the "breakage," or the amount of money left over when a track rounds off winnings to the nearest dime. Half the money is kept by the state; the rest goes back to the tracks when they apply for their annual licenses.
As adopted, the law requires the money to be "equitably distributed" between the backstretch and the rest of the race course, taking into account how much the track already has spent.
"My original idea was to guarantee a specific amount," said state Sen. John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat and member of the task force. "But I acknowledged the need for flexibility. The tracks may want to spend 80 percent to build all new dormitories, then they wouldn't need to spend any more after that."
The law requires each track to submit an annual capital improvement plan to the Illinois Racing Board, which can deny funds or withhold a track's license.
The task force's interest in the backstretch began in March after The Chicago Reporter began examining the living conditions at Arlington International Racecourse. About 1,500 backstretch workers five at the track in 12-foot by 12-foot dormitory rooms, with communal bathrooms and bare concrete floors and walls.
Last August, unsanitary conditions led to an outbreak of a rare form of dysentery in two of the dorms, infecting 17 people, including 15 children under the age of 6. The disease causes fever, abdominal pain and diarrhea and is passed through human feces and infected food and water.
Many track workers are Latino immigrants who don't speak English and are afraid to complain for fear they will lose their jobs, the Reporter found.
"If (the Reporter) hadn't written the story, it wouldn't have come to the attention of the task force," Cullerton said.
Since reopening in 1989, Arlington has spent $5.9 million from the Improvement Fund, but only $16,000 on backstretch improvements, the Reporter found.
The Racing Board inspects backstretch housing, but did not have the power to order tracks to make specific improvements, said Racing Board Executive Director Joe Sinopoli. That will change under the new law, he said.
Paul O'Connor, a spokesman for Arlington, said the track in the past has spent more on the backstretch than it received from the fund.
O'Connor acknowledged the track's responsibility for the conditions of the backstretch. But more attention should be focused on the low wages paid to workers by the trainers and owners, he said.
"If we're going to look at the backstretch, the racetrack should do its part, but the horsemen should do their part too," he said.
And he said he still is not happy with the prospect of having children exposed to the dangerous conditions of the backstretch. "Anyone who thinks it is good for families is wrong," O'Connor said. "It is not a good thing to submit children to huge trucks and high-strung animals in constant motion."
O'Connor said Arlington will remain open as long as it makes a profit. But with a diminishing share of the gambling market, that may be difficult, he said.
The legislation gives Arlington 1 percent of all wagers on Arlington races made at any race track or off-track betting parlor in the state. It also allows owner Richard Duchossois to keep his off-track betting parlors at his Quad City Downs race course, even though the track is closed.
Rev. David Krueckeberg, who visited the track for 21 years as a race track pastor, said he hoped that the new requirements would improve the conditions of the backstretch workers.
"I would hope Duchossois would do as fine a job on the backside as he did on the front side. He did a magnificent job up there," Krueckeberg said.
"I hope and pray that it all happens in a positive way."