A Sad State of Affairs at Arlington

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Arlington Park | Coady

The Week in Review, by Bill Finley

Arlington Park announced last week that the 2020 meet has been canceled at least through July 5, which hardly came as a surprise. No one was expecting the track to open any time soon. The bigger question for now is: will Arlington ever race again?

When Arlington reopened in 1989 after the grandstand was destroyed by a fire, it seemed positioned to be among the most successful tracks in the country for decades to come. Richard Duchossois built a fabulous, grandiose racetrack, one that served the third biggest city in the U.S. Thirty-one years later, Arlington, which is owned by Churchill Downs, is closed and facing so many problems that it’s hard to know where to start. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere, but nobody can seem to find it.

The latest issue is whether or not Arlington should reopen and conduct spectator-free racing. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has given tracks permission to reopen, as long as fans are not allowed to attend the races. While both Hawthorne, which is currently racing standardbreds, and Fairmount Park have announced plans to start racing again, Arlington officials said they would remain closed. Their logic was that it was not practical from an economic standpoint to race without fans. Nevermind that the parent company aggressively sought to reopen Churchill Downs without fans.

“Spectator-less racing at this juncture is not possible,” Arlington President Tony Petrillo said at a recent meeting of the Illinois Racing Board. “The option may be available for other tracks but it is not for Arlington due to its high cost structure.”

The real reason behind Arlington’s decision may be that Churchill has no incentive to open.

According to Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President Mike Campbell, Arlington stands to make $12 million this year, even if there is no meet. The money comes from various commissions, including a cut from money wagered in Illinois on out-of-state tracks. To put on a race meet is expensive and the product would not be that attractive to bettors. From a bottom-line standpoint, which is always foremost whenever Churchill makes decisions, there is not much to be gained, particularly if Arlington loses its on-track business. Campbell said Arlington only makes about $1 million a year operating a race meet, and that is with fans. (The TDN was unable to reach Petrillo to confirm Campbell’s numbers).

“No one can make them do what they don’t want to do,” Campbell said

The situation might change if Pritzker decides to allow fans in the stands, but Arlington is set to close Sept. 30. It seems unlikely that fans will be allowed to attend the races by that time. Presumably, that would mean there will not be a 2020 meet. Hawthorne’s Thoroughbred meet starts Oct. 1.

But Arlington’s problems go well beyond whether or not the governor will allow fans in the stands.

In July, Pritzker signed a gambling bill that included the state’s racetracks, but Churchill surprised nearly everyone in the Illinois racing industry when it announced that Arlington would not be seeking a gaming license. Most believe Churchill turned down the chance to have a casino at Arlington because it thought it would hurt business at its casino in nearby Des Plaines, Illinois.

Afterward, Churchill committed to keep Arlington open only through the 2021 season. But, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the likelihood that there would be a meet this year was not good. With Arlington’s purses among the lowest in the sport, horsemen were holding out for a better deal. Campbell said Churchill was offering $130,000 a day and the horsemen wanted $200,000. Even if Arlington decided it was in their best interests to run without spectators, they couldn’t because there is no contract in place with the horsemen.

“They feel no responsibility to the horsemen,” Campbell said. “You tell me how we can get them to open? It doesn’t seem like I have much leverage.”

The relationship between horsemen and management has grown acrimonious and the two sides aren’t talking. After Arlington announced it would not open without spectators, Campbell issued a statement in which he said, “Arlington Park exists to race horses–for the benefit of Illinois jobs, economic opportunity and taxpayers–not to sell $16 sangrias.”

He said he can see Arlington trying to open up for a few days in order to hold the GI Arlington Million and the other major stakes scheduled for Aug. 15.

“They might try it,” he said. “It’s against federal law to broadcast that signal without our consent. I guess they can try anything. It would be the first time that an organizational licensee ever attempted to do that. I don’t know what they are going to do.”

Nor does he know what is in store for 2021. Presumably, fans will be allowed in the stands by then, but can the horsemen and Arlington reach an agreement on purses? Will Churchill be motivated to run at Arlington when it doesn’t appear there will be any consequences if they keep the track closed and there is not much money to be made? A new owner could change everything, but Arlington maintains the track is not for sale.

“They said they are not willing to commit beyond 2021,” Campbell said. “They’re not willing to commit to 2020. How do I know there will be any commitment to 2021?”

He can’t. Everything is on hold and no progress is being made toward Arlington opening again. There are plenty of problems and, for now, no solutions.

Progress In Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s racetracks remain close due to the coronavirus outbreak and Governor Tom Wolf has yet to give a date for their reopening. The situation looked particularly bleak last month when Wolf implied that the tracks would be among the last businesses in the state to reopen. But progress is now being made. Last week, members of Wolf’s staff met with horsemen, who were encouraged by the talks. Todd Mostoller, who heads the horsemen’s groups at Penn National and Presque Isle, has told horsemen he hopes racing can start up again within three weeks.

Assiniboia Downs, Canada’s Fonner Park

Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, set a new record for one-day handle Tuesday when $1,623,616 was bet on the races. The record lasted all of one night, as $1,786,264 was wagered Wednesday. On both occasions, Assiniboia was the only Thoroughbred track in North America to run at night. It also couldn’t have hurt that Assiniboia gave out free past performances last week. Assiniboia was the first Thoroughbred track in Canada to reopen.

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