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Idaho racing groups seek OK of lucrative betting terminals

Racing groups are urging an Idaho commission to sign off on a last-ditch effort to save their faltering industry after failing to convince the Legislature to reinstate lucrative betting machines known as instant racing terminals.

John Sheldon, the operator of Les Bois, Idaho’s largest horse racing track, told racing commissioners Jan. 25 that they have the authority to allow tracks to use the terminals.

Instant horse racing allows bettors to place wagers on prior horse races that are videotaped with no identifiable information about the horses or results.

The terminals have spinning wheels, sounds and animations that mimic slot machines.

Supporters say the machines are different from slot machines because instant racing uses a legal pari-mutuel betting system that pits bettors against each other and gives the house a percentage of the winnings.

Lawmakers legalized instant racing in 2013 but quickly repealed the practice two years later after critics said they had been duped into approving cleverly designed slot-machines.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter attempted to veto the repeal law, but the Idaho Supreme Court eventually ruled that the Republican governor failed to complete a veto on time.

The court’s decision has been considered a blow to Idaho’s horse racing industry. Tracks have shuttered and industry groups have moved to neighboring states, like Wyoming and Oregon that are considered friendlier and more profitable for their business. Without instant racing, horsemen’s groups argue, their entire industry will disappear.

Sheldon says that the commission approved virtual horse racing — similar to instant racing — in 2008 through an administrative rule-making process. Back then, the commission adopted a temporary rule to allow virtual horse racing, but the issue was ultimately dropped due to legislative opposition.

Sheldon argues that the commission should use that precedent to approve his instant racing application and others.

Administrative rules are created by executive agencies to enforce state laws and carry the same weight as laws. Agencies such as the racing commission can approve temporary rules if they meet certain criteria and are approved by the governor’s office — but all temporary rules ultimately need legislative approval to remain in effect long-term.

Such approval from lawmakers is expected to be an uphill battle.

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, and Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, were the only lawmakers in attendance Wednesday at the commission meeting and they didn’t offer any comment when prompted by commissioners and left before the end of the meeting.

The two are chairmen of the House and Senate State Affairs panel, which would handle instant racing-related legislation.

Racing commission members didn’t make any decisions during the meeting.

“I am hopeful we can reach a middle ground with the Legislature,” said Commissioner Fred Snook. “We haven’t had much communication. The main purpose of today’s meeting was to get started on that plan.”

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