State fair betting comes under scrutiny in gambling law review

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) For decades Alaskans attending the Alaska State Fair have gambled on ''rat'' races, a game of chance in which bettors try to guess which hole a gerbil will run down as he slowly spins on a wheel.

But a new legal opinion under review in the Attorney General's office could put an end to gambling on animals.

The opinion by Dan Branch, a state assistant attorney general, came out in November. It was prompted by a periodic review of the regulations that cover the state's limited legal gambling.

Branch's opinion said all forms of gambling are illegal in Alaska, unless the Legislature makes an exception.

''The list of allowable charitable gaming activities includes bingo, pull-tab games, raffles. ... It does not include hamster games or rat races,'' according to the opinion.

The opinion has left the Palmer Elks Lodge, which operates the popular rat race game at the fair, scrambling to prove it has been rat racing since before statehood. If it can dig up some documentation of pre-1959 rat racing, it might get to continue.

''We're fighting,'' said Rollie Vasanoja, lodge secretary for the Palmer Elks. ''We're trying to keep our rat race going.''

Rat racers are not the only animal gamblers who have run up against the state. The Soldotna Veterans of Foreign Wars, after 13 years, has had to shut down its chicken scat game, the object of which was to bet on the spot a chicken will use in heeding the call of nature.

The term rat race is misleading. Rat races, which have been known to take place at Alaska bars as well as fairs, do not necessarily involve rats.

''It originally started out with rats, but then the rats would bite,'' Vasanoja said. ''So they went to gerbils.''

The game is more a roulette wheel than a race. The gerbil is placed on a wheel that somebody ''turns real slow,'' Vasanoja said. The wheel is full of colored holes, and people place bets on what color hole the animal will choose to duck into to exit the wheel.

Some colors are less common on the wheel than others, and they pay out better odds.

Vasanoja said the popular game helps the Elks raise money for causes such as sports teams in the Mat-Su area.

According to revenue reports the Elks filed with the state, the 2002 net proceeds from the rat race at the fair were $10,088. The Palmer Elks permit was not denied in time to stop the rat racing at the fair this year.

State officials are looking at whether it will be their last go-round.

''That is a question we have been wrestling with,'' said Larry Meyers, deputy tax director in the state Revenue Department.

There is the question of whether rat racing existed before statehood and would have a pre-existing, or grandfather, right. The state departments of Law and Revenue are investigating whether regulations could be drawn up to make it legal, Meyers said.

Also, the Legislature could pass a bill to put rat racing on the list of legal games.

Meyers said he does not know if the state is going to take a look at whether chicken-poop betting is legal. Sue Singleton, manager of the Soldotna Veterans of Foreign Wars, hopes so.

Until it was shut down by the state, the Soldotna VFW would roll out the game each summer during the town's Progress Days. A big sheet of paper would be divided into more than 1,000 2-inch squares. People would pay a couple of bucks to put their name and phone number on one of the squares. The winner was whoever signed up on the square the rooster soiled.

''I've seen it take over an hour and a half, and sometimes it takes five minutes, depending on what's going on in the rooster,'' Singleton said.

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