SALT LAKE CITY — Gambling may be illegal in Utah, but a lawmaker is pushing a bill that could legalize betting on horse races.
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville — a horse racer himself — is sponsoring SB181, which would allow voters to decide on whether their counties should allow wagers on horse racing or "parimutuel betting."
"There are some counties that are going to love it," Hinkins said. "Rural Utah would love it."
To Hinkins, Utah's ban on horse race betting is a rural economy issue. He said "a lot of our horse breeders" have left to do business in other surrounding states, and as a result, the entire horse industry — including hay growers, farriers and veterinarians — are hurting.
"I think we ought to keep our economy here," Hinkins said. "I see it as rural economic development, to bring our breeders back."
Additionally, Hinkins said counties would keep the revenue generated by the sport, apart from a purse that would be awarded to race winners.
"It would be a good windfall for some of these local ranchers to stay in the business," he said.
Hinkins said he's "got a lot of friends in the horse racing industry," and acknowledged he owns racehorses, so he said "I guess" that could be seen "as a conflict of interest."
But for years, Hinkins said, he and others in his horse racing circles have been wondering "when are we going to be able to have homecourt advantage?"
"Utah horses race all over the country. We're very well-known," Hinkins said. "But like I said, we're disadvantaged."
Betting on horse races has been illegal in Utah even though the Utah Supreme Court in 1927 ruled parimutuel betting does not violate Utah's constitutional ban on gambling.
Asked if he expects any pushback on his bill because some lawmakers may consider betting on horse races similar to gambling, Hinkins said, "I hope not."
"I don't really see it as a problem," Hinkins said, noting other neighboring states such as Idaho and Wyoming all allow betting on horse races.
Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said he plans to be the House sponsor for SB181.
While Hinkins is optimistic the bill will find support, McKell said he expects "a lot of pushback." Still, McKell said he's supportive, noting that unlike gambling, "parimutuel betting is not a game of chance."
"If you were to go to the Wyoming Downs, you would see thousands of people from Utah," McKell said. "At this point, I don't see any reason not to allow betting at the racetrack in the state of Utah."5 comments on this story
A ballot initiative in 1992 sought to legalize parimutuel betting in Utah, but it failed. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was among the opposing groups.
Still, Hinkins is hoping his bill won't get shot down. He called horse racing "clean entertainment."
"It's been around for 200 years," he said. "It's the Kentucky Derby, you know."
"People go to Wendover for recreation and relaxation, and Evanston for the horse races," Hinkins added. "We would just like to keep our industry here."