Park County voters will be asked if they want to approve a form of legalized gambling in their community on this year’s general election ballot.
Pari-mutuel gambling will be put up for consideration, approved by the Park County commissioners at their meeting last Tuesday for the November ballot.
“I firmly support putting this in front of the voters,” said commissioner Jake Fulkerson.
Pari-mutuel most typically involves gambling on a variety of racing sports, but it is only associated with horse racing in Wyoming. On a local level, pari-mutuel would come in the form of terminals that resemble slot machines, and live betting on simulcast horse races.
Pari-mutuel wagering involves bets being placed together in a pool, with the total funds disbursed among the winning bettors who played against each other but not the house. The house pulls a share of the revenue known as takeout before the winnings are dispersed, removing it from the competition.
In its most basic form, pari-mutuel would take place through off-track betting in electronic video game machines placed in bars and restaurants, offering historical horse races for people to bet on.
These machines differ from skill-based amusement games, which although legal, some Wyoming lawmakers criticize as essentially slot machines. Traditional slot machines are not legal in Wyoming.
There is no pari-mutuel wagering allowed anywhere in northwest Wyoming outside Teton County at this time. In 2019, sports betting was legalized in Colorado.
“With the world of gambling how it is nowadays, anybody in Park County can get on their phone and just gamble,” 307 Horse Racing general manager Randy Greer said.
Patrick Montgomery, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church, doesn’t see it that way.
“Just because you make something available doesn’t make it the right thing,” he said.
Last year, $800 million in total wagers were placed in Wyoming. Of that total $793.4 million was spent using historical horse racing terminals.
Greer said counties and municipalities receive a varying portion of funding from in-person and simulcast racing, dispersed by the state. In 2019, the state received $56,721 of the $3.7 million raised from simulcast wagering and $25,251 from in-person racing bets.
A total of 17 Wyoming counties and cities received funding from historical horse racing terminals in 2019 and 14 total counties where it is legal. Sheridan is the closest location to Park County where it is both legal and active. Sheridan County and the City of Sheridan each received $341,178 from HHRT in 2019.
“We feel like those are very, very conservative numbers for Park County,” said Josh Allison, a Cody businessman who recently helped start 307 Horse Racing.
Allison and Greer came before the commissioners to push for the measure to be put on the ballot.
The 307 Horse Racing business recently applied for a gaming license with the State of Wyoming and if approved, would become the state’s third operator. Allison said a licensed operator must host 16 live races over the course of the year, but he said his business is aiming for triple that number. There is live horse racing currently in Gillette, Evanston and Rock Springs. No live horse racing exists in Montana, South Dakota or Idaho.
Greer said these states didn’t succeed with horse racing because they didn’t establish off-track betting.
“That’s how we survive,” he said.
The 307 organization will be using the Cam-Plex in Gillette for live horse racing and Greer said he will be speaking with representatives in Casper and Cheyenne soon about leasing their facilities as well.
He said horse track representatives have told him, ‘Everything else is going down and you guys are going up.’”
Although there were 17 off-track betting locations, only three different tracks held live races.
“They’re (horse breeders) all looking for a place to come and they’re bringing better livestock to the state,” Greer said.
Allison said businesses could expect an increase of patrons from the presence of the historical horse race terminals but stressed this form of gambling is much different than what one could envision at a casino in Las Vegas or Montana.
“We think it will be a win-win for everybody,” he said.
If the ballot measure passes, 307 Horse Racing would still have to receive permission from the commissioners in order to run a HHRT machine in any business.
Betting on live simulcasts and streams for horse races like the Kentucky Derby as well as contests at local tracks could also occur in the future, but the HHRT’s would come first, Greer said.
The 307 organization came to the county at a possibly opportune time, considering the recent downturn in the economy, causing slashed budgets statewide.
“They’re creating a potential revenue stream for the cities and the counties at a time when the state and everybody else is chasing nickels,” said Fulkerson. “It will drive everybody into the bars and restaurants that could really use it.”
Public winnings amounted to 92.3% of total HHRT disbursements in 2019, while the counties and municipalities received 1% or $7.9 million, with the rest of the revenues going to the horse breeders and tracks, and the WGC. The state takes a .5% share of the revenue ($3.9 million in 2019) and the breeders are awarded 40%, or $3.2 million 2019.
“We need to look at every revenue source possible and we would be remiss to not put this on the ballot,” said commission chair Joe Tilden, adding, “I think this is going to be a hard sell.”
A 1994 statewide ballot measure to legalize all limited-stakes casino gambling failed with 68% of the public voting against it with the Cody chamber of commerce also voicing its opposition at them. This time around the chamber has no comment yet regarding pari-mutuel.
There can be negative social impacts stemming from legalizing instant-gratification gaming.
“In a general sense anything that is gambling, such as an entertainment game or lotteries, can have a negative social impact,” Montgomery said. “If you go to the reservation and watch how people make decisions standing in line at the gas station – whether to buy milk for their children or get lottery tickets.”
A 2004 study performed by the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo found that 6-12% of adults living within 10 miles of a gaming establishment could be considered problem-gamblers.
In 2013, Wyoming lawmakers passed two bills – one establishing the state lottery, and the other allowing residents to participate in national lotteries like PowerBall. Simulcast betting and historical horse racing terminals were also legalized as part of the legislation.
Allison mentioned the Wyoming Game and Fish hunting license raffle as another form of legal gambling occurring in the local community. This revenue brought in around $1.5 million for the state last year, but none of it was directly dispersed to Park County.
“It’s already here, they’re already doing it in Park County,” he said.
Although he said it’s a long shot for now, Allison said he would love to bring live horse racing to Cody someday. Allison is breeding in-state quarter horses for racing with the hope they will be a factor in the national and world racing scene someday.
“It would be unbelievable to have some races here I think but there’s a lot of stuff you’d have to go through with a track,” Allison said. “You couldn’t just use the rodeo grounds. You’d have to modify it and things like that.”
Tumultuous gambling past
Gambling has had a storied history in Park County and Wyoming.
The first laws against gambling came about in 1909, and shortly after four slot machines and two roulette wheels were confiscated in Cody, according to a Big Horn County Rustler story.
But it appears enforcement fluctuated back and forth over time.
Certain local ranches and some establishments ran slot machines, and other gambling activities continued long after the activity became illegal.
This activity was so prevalent that in 1947, Webb Trout, bureau manager of United Press in Wyoming, wrote an editorial accusing many law enforcement officers of closing their eyes to the activity, describing the issue as a “red-hot political potato” that had been “dropped squarely into the lap of Gov. Lester C. Hunt.”
Pari-mutuel gambling has been legal in Wyoming since 1967. It is now overseen by the Wyoming Game Commission, which was formed by law in March after Gov. Mark Gordon reconstituted the Wyoming Pari-Mutuel Commission, giving the new organization oversight of all gambling in Wyoming. The WGC also oversees bingo, pull tabs, calcutta, and skill based amusement games. Gambling in regards to charity is not regulated.