Bettendorf native David McCaffrey is itching to get back to the Quad-City Downs.
He recalls being a teen and bolting Bulldog high school football games at half time to make it to the East Moline harness racing track after the 7th race. Then, admission was free.
Today, McCaffrey operates a stable of 60 horses. This trainer and owner is chairman of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association and insists reviving live racing is not only possible at the Downs. It will be lucrative.
He and the horsemen’s association director Tony Somone visited the Quad-City Times Editorial Board on Wednesday. They’d read our skepticism about reopening the track (May 5, “Derby belies racing’s reality”) and are adamant that bringing slot machines to race tracks can fund the purses that will revive harness racing at the track.
And they insist the Quad-City Downs can be made ready for racing.
“We walked the track last night. I would feel safe racing on that track tomorrow,” McCaffrey said. “That track, as it sits now, 20 years without a horse, is in better shape than most county fairgrounds where we race.”
What’s lagging are purses for Illinois horsemen. There’s not enough at Maywood and Balmoral, which hosts Illinois’ remaining harness meets, to support the state’s industry. So some are pulling out. Others, including McCaffrey, are establishing stables elsewhere.
Pending Illinois legislation would turn Illinois tracks into “racinos,” a term that describes tracks that offer casino-type gaming. Illinois’ bill would put slots at existing tracks, and use the revenue to raise purses.
McCaffrey says purses of $10,000 (about triple the standard purse from the Downs’ glory days) would bring horses back to the Downs.
“Horsemen run to the money.”
He envisions a “boutique meet” — a short two-to-three month season of Friday through Sunday racing. The weekend cards would draw 600 to 800 horsemen to town each weekend, mostly from Chicago. The Downs wouldn’t need to rebuild a back stretch. A much less expensive “ship-in” barn could hold horses. No one would live there.
The slot revenue wouldn’t just increase purses. McCaffrey and Somone say it will create new product — live racing — that will serve a rapidly expanding part of their business: Online wagering.
“Seventy percent of our handle comes from wagering through computers and phones,” McCaffrey said, pulling out his phone. “I can bet on a race with this in two minutes, then watch it.”
Each Illinois race track by law is allowed to license up to five off-track-betting parlors. That provision encouraged Illinois lawmakers and regulators to pretend the Downs still is a track, entitled to five OTB licenses on behalf of its owner, Churchill Downs.
Both Somone and McCaffrey said OTBs have run their course and will be left behind by online wagering.
“They could offer me an OTB for $10 and I would say, “no,” because of this,” McCaffrey said, gesturing again with his phone.
Meanwhile, Somone insisted that if Churchill Downs would lease him the Quad-City Downs, “ I’d take that right now and make money.”
The horsemen expressed frustration the Downs owners haven’t produced any specific plan to revive racing. But they find themselves allied with Churchill Downs leaders to back the Illinois gaming bill that adds five new casinos and hundreds of slots at existing tracks.
“I have to laugh when I hear this called an expansion of gambling,” McCaffrey said. “What do people think has been going on at these tracks for years?”