Oklahomans voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to legalize gambling on horse racing.
Unofficial returns from all of the state's 2,398 precincts showed State Question 553 was approved 450,214 to 324,676. The question would permit pari-mutuel betting on a county option basis.
Unofficial returns gave the horse race betting issue 58 percent of the vote. It jumped into an early lead, never dropping below 54 percent of the vote.
The keen interest in the question was evident from the voter turnout.
According to unofficial returns 774,447 people cast ballots on SQ 553, compared to a vote of 748,571 on a similar betting proposal in the 1974 primary election.
The Oklahoma Horsemen's Association, which sponsored the question, declared victory two hours after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Mike Williams, a spokesman for the association, said he was surprised at the wide margin.
"I just personally underestimated the strength of our county coordinators," he said. "We carried counties we had no idea we could carry, such as ones in southeast and southwest parts of the state."
Williams said he hoped the opponents of pari-mutuel would keep an open mind long enough for the supporters to prove Oklahoma can have a first-class horse racing industry.
Dr. Boyce Bowdon, director of communications and public relations for the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, said opponents are disappointed.
"Those of us who oppose State Question 553 are the first to be disappointed by its passage. Unfortunately, we won't be the last," he said.
Bowdon said disappointment will come in the months ahead to those who expect legalized gambling to produce an economic boon for Oklahoma and to those who suffer from the increased crime and political corruption legalized gambling will cause.
"The Untied Methodist Church opposed gambling long before SQ 553 was drafted," said Bowdon, a director of the Anti-Crime Association of Oklahoma which organized to fight the proposal. "We will continue to oppose it in county elections."
Pari-mutuel betting, a system of betting in which those backing the winners divide the total amount bet in proportion to their wagers, less a percentage for track operators, taxes and fees, was defeated the last time it was on a ballot.
On Aug. 27, 1974, Oklahoma voters rejected a pari-mutuel issue by 63,193 votes.
The battle to get this latest horse race betting proposition before voters took more than two years and involved a false start by the Oklahoma Horsemen's Association, the promoters of SQ 553.
In May, 1980, the association filed a petition but later abandoned it after discovering it didn't include a county-option provision.