By T. D. Thornton
Barely 18 hours after a state-mandated Dec. 31 deadline elapsed for having a purse contract in place, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) lashed out at Arlington International Racecourse and its publicly traded ownership, Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), claiming that the gaming company “deceived Illinois” and is now “threatening the future of live racing at Arlington by refusing to commit” to funding adequate purses for the 2020 meet.
The ITHA’s allegations were listed in a point-by-point press release sent to news organizations late on New Year’s Day, and the top gripe pointed out that “Churchill’s plan to allocate just $130,000, on average, for overnight purses each day next year will render Arlington’s races irrelevant for the purpose of simulcasting and will, invariably, fail to attract quality stables to the track.”
David McCaffrey, the ITHA’s executive director, told TDN on Thursday that his organization is seeking $200,000 in daily Arlington purses.
By way of comparison, the ITHA release stated that competing overnight purses average $180,000 per day in Indiana and $174,000 per day in Minnesota.
“Churchill knows what it takes to produce a full calendar of quality racing. In its home state of Kentucky, Churchill has, with its substantial loan to the purse account at Turfway Park, shown a commitment to Thoroughbred racing that is consistent with the reputation it built,” the ITHA release stated. “Yet in Illinois—as elsewhere in the country, from Hollywood Park to Calder Race Course—Churchill is rapidly abandoning any meaningful commitment to racing.”
McCaffrey said the two parties have met three times recently to hash out a contract. At the most recent meeting, Dec. 18, he said the ITHA presented a number of options as to how CDI could bridge that $70,000 daily purse gap (read them in the ITHA press release here).
But McCaffrey said CDI’s answer was a flat-out “no” without a counter-proposal.
A Thursday phone message left for Arlington president Tony Petrillo asking for CDI’s version of the stalled negotiations did not yield a return call prior to deadline for this story.
ITHA president Michael Campbell told TDN that as the Dec. 31 deadline loomed, the horsemen tried to schedule talks with CDI on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, but CDI officials didn’t respond to meeting requests.
“They have our red-lined contract,” Campbell said. “It’s not us who are the obstructionists here. We have repeatedly, through emails and text messaging and conversations, said that we are ready to meet on any occasion, with reasonable notice.”
Added McCaffrey, “We’re very much in uncharted waters here, and I don’t know how this proceeds. It’s pretty rare [to expect] an agreement to get made without people meeting. I would characterize it as we would like to continue negotiations, and we feel very strongly about our positions. But clearly, deals are hard to make if you’re not talking.”
Last August, CDI stunned Illinois horsemen by intentionally missing a deadline to apply for newly legalized racino licensure that would have bolstered purses at the track.
The decision took on added controversy because CDI has an ownership stake in a nearby competing casino, and has stated an intent to open another near Chicago.
This alleged conflict has fueled accusations that CDI used the horsemen’s support to get gaming legislation passed, but then abandoned the idea of operating a racino at Arlington over concerns that gaming there would hurt the bottom line at its existing and proposed casinos.
At a Sep. 17 race dates hearing, the IRB postponed awarding 2020 race dates to Arlington and grilled CDI executives over the corporation’s apparent lack of commitment to Thoroughbred racing in Illinois. It mandated that CDI officials return in a week’s
time to articulate a tangible plan that focused on the gaming company’s long-term dedication to racing and how purses would be funded at Arlington.
Yet on Sep. 24, the IRB unanimously voted to award 2020 dates to Arlington even though CDI officials largely did not budge from their publicly stated stance against applying for racino licensure at Arlington, and those CDI executives wouldn’t say what the corporation’s intentions for the track were beyond 2021.
(By contrast, Hawthorne Race Course, the other Thoroughbred venue near Chicago, is swiftly moving ahead with the licensing and construction phases of its purse-boosting racino. The ITHA claimed in its Jan. 1 press release that purse contract negotiations with Hawthorne took only one hassle-free hour to complete.)
In addition to making racino licenses available to existing racetracks that applied for them, the sweeping Illinois Gaming Act passed last June also had a new requirement written into it that states: “A contract with the appropriate Thoroughbred or Standardbred horsemen organization shall be negotiated and signed by the organization licensee before the beginning of each calendar year.”
In light of that requirement, the ITHA claimed in its release that CDI “is out of compliance with the law.”
Yet the Gaming Act does not state any explicit penalty that the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) could or should impose on either party for not adhering to the deadline.
Domenic DiCera, the IRB’s executive director, told TDN on Thursday that he would not comment specifically on whether the IRB considers CDI and/or the ITHA to be out of compliance or what a potential penalty might be. But he did offer an explanation as to how the situation is likely to be handled moving forward.
“The board has not rendered its position on what recourse that may be taken. This is a negotiation between two parties, and there’s some contract law that probably has to be considered because it’s not addressed in the legislation,” DiCera said. “There is some overriding statutory language that the board can rely on, but the board renders that decision. It’s not done at the staff level. The issue itself, if it’s not resolved, will certainly be discussed at the next [Jan. 21] meeting in one form or another.”