By T. D. Thornton
For the third time in two weeks, representatives from Arlington International Racecourse and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (ITHA) arrived at a crucial Illinois Racing Board (IRB) meeting without a signed contract for the 2020 meet, again putting in jeopardy the already delayed and curtailed summer racing season at suburban Chicago's premier track.
Thursday morning's IRB meeting went into recess 43 minutes after it started after both sides stated that they are close, but not in total agreement over a contract that would cover both 2020 and 2021 racing at Arlington.
After a break of 20 minutes, the meeting reconvened with IRB chairman Daniel Beiser issuing an ultimatum that Friday afternoon will be the new deadline for the parties to present a resolution to the board.
The IRB has repeatedly stated it will not grant race dates without a signed contract in place. According to state law, both parties are months past a mandated Jan. 1 due date for the 2020 contract.
“I'm going to recess this meeting until [June 19] at 1 p.m. [Central],” Beiser said. “This is hopefully going to give the parties the time they need to finally reach a signed agreement. And at that time I'll be prepared to entertain a motion to finally dispose of this matter one way or the other, with an agreement or without an agreement.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Arlington issued a notice on Twitter announcing that the two sides had reached a “tentative” deal for both 2020 and 2021 racing. According to the post, the 30-date 2020 meet would run July 23-Sept. 30, with racing on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The stable area would open “on or before” July 6.
The Daily Herald of Illinois further reported that the agreement called for no stakes races in 2020, including the track's signature race, the GI Arlington Million.
Commissioner Thomas McCauley, who has been active in mediating the negotiations, again volunteered his time to move forward additional talks on Thursday so the IRB can vote on the dates application on Friday.
“I know that [Wednesday] morning we had a deal in substance,” McCauley said. “What happens sometimes is that when the deal in substance goes to the drafting table, in good faith one or two issues can arise. And apparently, that's what's happened in this case.”
Arlington president Tony Petrillo testified that the two sides had agreed to use the two-year contract template from 2018-19 to design the 2020-21 deal. At the June 5 IRB meeting, the ITHA had emphasized that it would not ink a two-year contract, so this shift seemed to represent an advancement of the negotiations.
But Petrillo said that when Arlington's attorneys drafted just such a contract, the ITHA sent it back on Wednesday evening “with new conditions and reopening some of the terms” that Petrillo believed had already been agreed upon.
The two parties worked back and forth until about midnight, and then resumed negotiations Thursday morning up until the 10 a.m. start of the IRB meeting.
Kerry Lavelle, an attorney for the ITHA, gave commissioners a counterpoint to how he thought the talks had devolved.
“I respectfully disagree with Mr. Petrillo's characterization of the impasse that we are currently at,” Lavelle said. “These are new things that have emerged in our discussion points. One of them is simply out of all of our control, and that is what do we do if the IRB does not provide Arlington Park with the dates and the [simulcasting] host days that it applies for for the 2021 meet? If it gives more or it gives less, the economics change, and we have suggested a resolution for that.
“The second is we built a whole system of splitting up the purses based on projections,” Lavelle continued. “And it just came very clear to us late [Wednesday] night that these projections are only that. We think that there needs to be just a true-up at the end where if we're off [and] the overnight [purses] are overfunded, we need to pay Arlington Park. And if the overnights are underfunded based on our construct, they need to pay us.”
David McCaffrey, the ITHA's executive director, testified that a new sticking point is how the word “projection” is defined in the deal.
“If you go back to all of our contracts prior, you won't even see the word 'projection.' So it needs to be defined,” McCaffrey said. “It's not in the contracts before, so those templates can't be used with respect to this issue. Nor can they be used with respect to the assumption [of a change in dates] next year.”
Petrillo countered that purse projections and dealing with schedule changes are nothing new. He said they've been part of past agreements with the ITHA going back at least a decade.
“We have had changes in the race schedules that have always been worked out between the parties after the agreements have been inked and signed,” Petrillo said. “So these new issues now that are evolving looking for very specific definitions just don't exist. But the past practice should speak to that, and [the new contract terms] should be satisfied by our past actions in working together.”
Asked by a commissioner how much longer it would take to get the two sides to sign a deal, Petrillo estimated it could be done within 30 to 60 minutes, but only if the IRB mediated.
“It is my perspective that if we are to reach an agreement, it is going to require the involvement of the board,” Petrillo said. “If there is no involvement, frankly, I'm going to be very honest: I don't see how we reach an agreement, because we seem to be moving on a path backwards rather than a path forward.”
McCaffrey's time estimate when asked the same question was “It could take five minutes. It could take five hours.”
McCaffrey continued: “Listen, I echo a lot of what Tony said with respect to the efforts that have been made here. We want to get to a deal. But at the same time, when you push the ball up the hill and you get to the very top, unless all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed, you're just not going to sign until all the deal is done. And hopefully we can get there.”
Beyond the issue of no contract being in place, the COVID-19 pandemic also complicated and delayed the Arlington meet beyond its planned May 1 opening. The season was supposed to run for 68 dates until Sept. 30.