By Bill Finley
Despite receiving an email from Churchill Downs officials saying they were ready to resume talking, Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President Mike Campbell said he thought the odds of the track holding a live meet in 2020 were “50-50.”
The horsemen and Churchill, which owns Arlington, have been at odds since August, when Churchill stunned the Illinois racing industry by not applying for a casino license at Arlington. Churchill also owns the nearby Rivers Casino Des Plaines in Des Plaines, Illinois. Without any promise of having gaming revenue available to supplement purses, Chicago area horsemen were again faced with having to run for some of the smallest purses in the sport in 2020. Additionally, Churchill has only committed to holding racing at Arlington through a 2021 meet.
According to Campbell, Churchill has offered $130,000 a day in purses for 2020, while the horsemen are seeking $200,000. Campbell said his Board of Directors has told him not to budge from the $200,000 number. A meet cannot take place unless there is an agreement in place between horsemen and management.
“The deal was we would ultimately look forward with gaming at Arlington Park and the other racetracks,” Campbell said. “We lobbied together for that. Now to get no gaming and even lower purses, that’s why my board has said ‘enough is enough’. We are better off ending it. Next year will be worse. Isn’t something better than nothing? The answer is no. We’re tired of being disappointed and rejected and run over by Churchill Downs.”
Campbell said he received an email Friday from Churchill saying they wished to resume talking next week.
“At least we are back at the table after two weeks of silence,” he said. “They haven’t said they would commit to our ask.”
Arlington president Tony Petrillo did not return a phone call seeking comment on the stalemate.
Campbell estimated that raising the purse level to $200,000 a day would cost Churchill $4 million beyond what it receives in commissions from wagering. He isn’t optimistic the company will agree to that.
“They haven’t offered a nickel so far and our $200,000 a day is solid,” Campbell said. “It’s a lousy $4 million. To ask for $4 million after they backstabbed us and didn’t ask for a casino at Arlington Park, that’s not asking for much.”
When asked if he believed a settlement could be reached and Arlington would race this year, Campbell replied: “It”s 50-50. I can’t get above that. They keep saying no and it’s pretty difficult to get beyond no. We are ready to negotiate at any time, any place, subject to reasonable notice. It’s up to them. ”
One way to increase overnight purses at Arlington would be to scrap the three Grade I races at the meet, the GI Arlington Million, the GI Beverly D. S. and the GI Secretariat S. Those races are worth a combined $2.1 million and the horseman have offered canceling them as a solution to the impasse.
“We have offered that as a possible solution and they rejected it,” Campbell said. “It’s a huge hit for the purse account. None of our people in Illinois are competitive in these events anymore. The last three years have been the Chad Brown show. We admire Chad Brown and we’re happy he participates, but our horsemen don’t get a serious return on that investment. Year after year, all it does is further deplete the purse account and run you into a deficit after that day that you can’t make up. At some point you have to look at the practicality of, is this affordable or not? The reality of this is it’s not affordable anymore”
Campbell also said that a group of owners that race at Arlington have to come him and pledged $200 million to buy the track from Churchill. If the group of owners were able to buy the track, they could put in a casino.
“The money won’t be the problem,” he said. “The problem is it has to be for sale. Our owner group has offered over $200 million for the place and we can’t even get a response.”
The horsemen are particularly upset because they say they believed Churchill was ready to build a casino at Arlington once legislation was passed allowing them to do so. Campbell said the horsemen and Illinois politicians were misled by Churchill and he will soon call on the governor to investigate.
Campbell said he was prepared to find a new place to race in 2020.
“I have a lot of horses and I have a pretty good stable. I’ll tell you this, if they close, I’ll put them on a trailer and go someplace else,” he said. “Most of us will.”