Jay Hochstetler calls Governor Quinn’s office every day asking the state’s highest elected official to "please sign SB 744." (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)
Matteson, IL–(ENEWSPF)– Jay Hochstetler has been a harness race driver for six years, the last four driving competitively at race tracks across the Chicagoland area and beyond. The 18-year-old graduated from Marian Catholic High School in May and is heading to the University of Kentucky to study economics and continue with his passion for horses.
Jay is a fourth generation harness racer. His father, Homer Hochstetler, well known on the harness racing circuit as an owner, rider, trainer and more, has been racing 35 years.
“If [Gov. Quinn] doesn’t sign it, horse racing is done in Illinois,” the younger driver said in an interview at a Matteson restaurant.
He is referring to Senate Bill 744, passed by both houses of the the Illinois General Assembly, now awaiting a few simple pen strokes from Governor Pat Quinn.
Hochstetler says the horse racing industry employs a wide spectrum of professionals in Illinois. Beyond the horse’s owner and drivers, there are trainers, grooms, race officials, veterinarians, blacksmiths, equipment makers, tellers, racetrack employees, farmers, feed stores, and more.
“Obviously the state is in a huge amount of debt [in Illinois]," he says. "This bill will generate revenue, tax revenue, construction revenue and agricultural revenue, create tens of thousands of jobs at the very least, if not 100,000."
Hochstetler says the bill will add five casinos to the state, allow existing casinos to have more gambling positions, and will permit slot machines at the Chicago airports. He says the state of Indiana saw a 40% increase in racetrack jobs just by adding slots.
“If he does not sign the bill, it will destroy the harness racing and thoroughbred racing industries in Illinois, and will create a chain effect from there,” the passionate driver says.
So what’s it like being a harness race driver? Jay says it’s like being on a living roller coaster. "You have a 1,000 pound animal in front of you that you’re trying to control from point a to point b. There’s an incredible adrenaline rush."
What’s the draw for spectators? “It’s the fastest two minutes in sports. You see these beautiful creatures giving it their all, and these people who have committed their lives to it." Nowhere else, Hochstetler says, are spectators able to get as close to the thrill of the action, literally feet away from these incredible animals.
"It’s thrilling, and you get to cheer them on."
Jay is not without his own criticisms of the harness racing industry. "Until now," he says, "Many of the owners of the racetracks have catered to the wrong crowd, the older gamblers." Today’s tracks feature bands and more for families, he says. He says officials are always on hand to oversee and ensure all of the animals have proper care. There are rules with regard to whipping the horses, for example. If excessive, the first violation means the driver is set down for a week. State officials work to make sure the animals are properly fed, not given harmful substances, etc.
He says the horses get a lot of official attention before and after races. "If you win, your horse gets tested, blood and urine. [That’s true] for all first and second place finishers." He says the industry is well-regulated.
Many have worked hard to remarket the industry, he says. “You’ve got to bring promotions in just like baseball does. If you bring a new fan out, then they’ll come back just for the racing next time.”
The young driver says it’s best to treat the horses with proper care and respect, “If you don’t treat them properly, you’re not going to get results. It’s important for the animal to be healthy."
Each animal has its own "personality," he says. Jay said his family had one horse named Life’s a Holiday that would only come to his mother, Connie.
The sport is not cheap for the owners. Typical care for a racing horse is $1,000 per month. “The vets costs are what really get you,” Jay says.
His family currently owns 25 horses. Years ago the family owned 50.
Back to the SB 744.
“We’re supposed to get 3% of casino revenue.” Jay said the casino industry has refused to turn the money, currently in escrow, over to the horse racing industry because the former governor who signed did so through illegal activities. In other words, taking advantage of the former governor’s reputation, the casino industry has held over $12 million for about two years. "Casinos have monopoly in Illinois," Hochstetler says.
And, he argues, with some merit, that a trip to the harness racing tracks are more family friendly than taking the family to the casino.
Most parks also have arcades for children.
"Kids can be as close as six feet to live horses racing past at 35 mph, close enough to hear them and watch the sweat glean on their backs," he says.
Parks in Illinois have free admission. Racing programs cost around $2.00, and food prices are not nearly as prohibitive as they are in other sports venues.
It is an outdoor environment. Smoking is not permitted. And for the serious betters, there’s an area for those 18 and older. Dining rooms available if you want to spend more.
Races at Balmoral run every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
Maywood Park runs races on Thursdays and Fridays.
Again, referencing SB 744, Hochstetler says, "It seems like just a gambling bill, but it touches so many other things in our state to help us get out of the hole our state is in. This will create small, part-time jobs, and larger jobs."
“Right now, all our money is going to Indiana. Why not keep the money in the state?”
Last thoughts? "Tell Governor Quinn to please sign Senate Bill 744 as-is."
Learn more about harness racing in Illinois here: http://www.harnessillinois.com