Coeur d'Alene Tribe seeks to stop instant horse racing in Idaho

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe is going up against Idaho's horse racing industry by asking the state to ban lucrative betting machines known as instant horse racing terminals.

Legislation backed by the tribe would repeal a 2013 law that authorized instant horse racing — betting on a previous race without any identifiable information. Three of Idaho's eight racetracks have installed the devices.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to introduce the legislation Friday, one day after a House committee spent nearly two hours discussing the legality of the machines and expressing dismay that they may have been deceived into approving a cleverly disguised slot machine.

The machines have a 2-inch screen that shows the last few seconds of a horse race while the rest of the machine spins with different symbols and sounds.

The Idaho Racing Commission says the machines are legal because bettors place wages against other bettors, known as pari-mutuel betting, and not the house. What's more, officials argue that the machines encourage live racing events because part of the profit is dedicated to the "purses" shared by the horse owners.

But "testimony will show how they operate, they look very, very much slot machines," said Bill Roden, representing the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, who introduced the legislation.

Roden, a former state lawmaker, said he remembers when slot machines were first banned in Idaho during the 1950s, but he still voted in favor of legalizing pari-mutuel betting when it was first introduced nearly 30 years ago because he saw they were two different forms of gambling.

He said the tribe didn't automatically oppose instant racing in 2013 because they trusted the promises that the terminals were not slot machines.

Lawmakers expressed particular alarm that one of the three locations offering instant racing machines had been approved to operate away from the racetrack.

According to Idaho law, all instant racing must take place on a state-licensed racetrack, with the exception that the racetrack may allow simulcast and pari-mutuel betting off-site to attract more customers. Lawmakers agreed to tweak the law because most Idaho racetracks are tied to county fairgrounds, located away from populated cities.

"It is concerning to me that any track can assign this right to any location they want, which in my opinion was not the intent of the law," said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who was part of the unanimous vote. "There's been a lot of talk around the Capitol. People are concerned."

Along with the legislation, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and three other tribes have sent a letter to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden demanding that the state stop all use of the machines.

Racing Commission Executive Director Frank Lamb defended the machines Thursday and Friday, stressing that the commission is receptive to the Legislature's concerns over the proliferation of the machines.

"I certainly felt the sting of the arrows," he said Thursday. "Because it is pari-mutuel wagering, we can regulate it. If it were not, we couldn't."