Saddled with questions

Officials say controversial 'historic horse racing machines' aren't what they were billed to be

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Mike Loberg plays Yukon Willie’s gold rush, an instant gaming machine at the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls on Friday morning. The Greyhound Park and Event center recently acquired 35 instant gaming machines for their facility.

POST FALLS - After placing your bet, a very small seconds-long video of a historic horse race starts playing in the corner while 95 percent of the screen rolls three columns of classic slot machine symbols.

The so-called "historic horse racing machines," or instant gaming machines, are really no different than the video slot machines at the Coeur d'Alene Casino in Worley.

It's difficult to understand how to bet on the horses themselves.

"I don't understand what the horse racing part of this game is," said Mike Loberg, who came over from the Spokane valley to bet on some simulcast horse races.

Loberg grew up around horse racing at Playfair Race Course in Spokane. He didn't like Friday's selection of actual horse races, so he sat down at the "historic horse race" machines to give them a try.

"I don't think you get to pick the horses you want," he said, adding he's not even sure how the machines calculate a win.

The Greyhound Park and Event Center has installed 35 of the slot-like machines over the course of the year, and hundreds more are popping up all over the state.

The controversial machines are only legal in five states, including Idaho, but several other states have declared them slot machines.

The Idaho legislature passed a law in 2013 to clarify that "historical horse racing" is legal as long as it is done at licensed horse racing tracks in Idaho.

But what was sold to the lawmakers as another form of pari-mutuel horse racing - which has been legal in Idaho since 1961 - doesn't appear to be what the machines are offering gamblers.

In fact, a handful of lawmakers attempted to overturn the 2013 approval of the machines earlier this year, saying they got "duped."

According to The Idaho Statesman newspaper of Boise, the House State Affairs Committee voted in January to reject proposed rules for instant gaming in Idaho, arguing that the kind of betting explained to legislators is not what has been delivered.

"This is the elephant in the room and I may as well say it," Vice Chairwoman Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, told the committee in January. "I think that there are some in this body that have felt duped. The machine that was characterized in committee last year is not the machine that we will be seeing coming into the racetrack."

Helo Hancock, legislative director for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, said that is exactly what happened. The legislature was duped into approving the machines, which he believes are directly prohibited by Idaho's constitution.

"Frankly, I think we were all duped," Hancock said. "This is really called instant racing. I Googled it and just about fell out of my chair."

He said lawmakers tried to get a hearing earlier this year to discuss the machines, but ultimately nothing got done. Hancock said the proponents of the machines fought vehemently to keep them legal.

"Their ace in the hole was they didn't show anyone the machines until after the session closed," Hancock said. "They even took the State Affairs Committee to Les Bois race track (in Garden City, outside Boise) and showed them a different machine. That machine looked like a microwave, but it's nothing like the machines they are installing."

Doug Okuniewicz, general manager of the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls, could not be reached for comment on Friday, but earlier this year he said he was certain that everyone will be betting on the same races, which develops the pool, and odds will be generated by the number of bets placed per race.

"They are not slot machines," Okuniewicz said at the time. "They are pari-mutuel betting machines."

The way the law is set up, Hancock said the race tracks can install as many machines as they want - even though tribes are limited in the number of machines they can have through a state compact.

He said every county in the state of Idaho could install these machines. In fact, he added, the Double Down Bar & Grill in Idaho Falls just installed 50 machines last week.

"Really, it's a big hoax," Hancock said. "If it were the tribe that misrepresented something like this and pulled the wool over their eyes, it would have been the first bill repealed next session and our name would have been mud.

"It's like our poker room," he continued. "We looked at it and said we have some really strong legal arguments, and if the state is OK with this huge expansion of casino gambling, we are certainly well within our boundaries."

But, Hancock said, the day after they opened the poker room the governor and the state attorney general said it was against the state constitution and filed a lawsuit against the tribe.

"What's going on here?" Hancock said. "It's a complete double standard."

He said when it comes to the tribe the state has consistently opposed their efforts to expand gaming in Idaho. In fact, the tribe wanted to purchase the Greyhound Park in the late 1990s for an off-reservation casino but the state refused to let them.

"That's kind of ironic, isn't it?" Hancock said. "There are a tremendous amount of unanswered questions around this."

Hancock said he thinks the legislature will bring up the issue again next year to reassess the machines.

"Obviously, we are not opposed to gaming," Hancock said. "But we don't like our livelihood taken away from us."

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