By T. D. Thornton
After an Arlington International Racecourse president Tony Petrillo reiterated that Chicago’s premier Thoroughbred track won’t seek to start racing until spectators are permitted, Illinois Racing Board (IRB) commissioner Thomas McCauley grilled him at length Friday as to why Arlington’s refusal to go spectator-free is out of step with tracks nationwide that are starting to emerge from COVID-19 restrictions.
McCauley, who for months now has been practically the only IRB member to ask direct questions of witnesses, also pressed Petrillo during Friday’s monthly tele-meeting on why Arlington’s plans for getting up and running are different from the spectator-free protocols implemented with success last week at Churchill Downs, even though Arlington and Churchill share the same corporate parent in Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI).
McCauley further probed Petrillo for answers pertaining to whether or not CDI’s other gambling interests in the state–a 62% ownership in one casino close to Arlington, a pending application for another, and a pending application for a sports betting license at Arlington–factor into allegations that the gaming corporation is dragging its feet on getting Arlington open for racing.
Beyond the pandemic-related shutdown, Arlington is in the midst of an acrimonious, six-month stalemate with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) over a contract for the 2020 meet that was supposed to have started May 1.
Racing with spectators present is widely considered to be months away for many United States jurisdictions, bringing up the legitimate question of whether Arlington honestly intends to stage a race meet in 2020 by insisting on spectators
“I’m still not clear as to why [CDI] could [race] in Kentucky but not Illinois [and] why we can’t even get a probable opening day for spectator-less racing, if in fact it’s going to happen,” McCauley said.
Earlier in the meeting Petrillo said Arlington’s plans for opening for live racing had not changed since the last IRB meeting. He explained that means Arlington’s off-track-betting locations first being fully operational “at the best case, without restrictions.” This would generate purse money for a meet that would then start at an undetermined later date for an unspecified number of dates.
“Spectator-less racing at this juncture is not possible,” Petrillo said. “The option may be available for other tracks but it is not for Arlington due to its high cost structure. For example, Arlington’s cost structure is twice that of Hawthorne’s Thoroughbred cost structure,” he added, without citing dollar figures.
“Churchill Downs has the backing of the state,” Petrillo explained. “They have a very clear pathway to opening that they’ve already entered into. They also have [$150,000 in state] funding available from the state for the COVID-19 protocols…. And most of these other tracks that will be opening do have other supplemental forms of income through other forms of gaming to support the purses.”
Yet everyone on Friday’s conference call knew that Arlington too, had its own shot at another form of gaming revenue. But 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. CDI was widely accused of not pursuing a casino at Arlington because it would compete with its existing and proposed gaming ventures.
Petrillo added that Churchill was also able to get up and running in part due to a “great relationship” with Kentucky horsemen, a not-so-subtle verbal jab that underscored the strain and frustration that has been simmering for years between the ITHA and Arlington.
McCauley bluntly asked Petrillo if he would agree that CDI is already “supported handsomely” by its various bet-taking businesses in Illinois.
“I don’t know, with all due respect, Mr. Commissioner, that I could characterize it that way,” Petrillo said. He then diverged into rundown of how CDI has many nationwide gaming interests in its portfolio, and how he’d have to run the numbers to see what sort of financial impact Illinois actually has for the corporation.
McCauley then asked Petrillo to project how much of a financial impact CDI might realize if and when its sports betting license at Arlington gets granted and its other Chicago-area casino is permitted to open. But again, the Arlington president balked at a definitive answer.
“To start to share that information would be a breach of our fiduciary responsibility to our organization and might infringe on some [of our] trade secrets,” Petrillo responded.
McCauley, trying to establish how much of Arlington’s potential racing season revolves around the willingness to budget money for it at the corporate level, then asked Petrillo for general acknowledgment that if CDI’s various properties perform well, the corporation should be expected to make money. But Petrillo didn’t want to field that question head-on either, so he deferred to higher-ups who weren’t present to testify.
“I think, commissioner, I might be…Are you asking for Arlington International Racecourse, for which I am prepared to answer questions?” Petrillo said. “If you’re asking for questions of CDI, I’m not able to answer those questions related to how, you know, what their investment is and what they plan to achieve as a result of those investments.”
Petrillo also came up blank when McCauley asked him if Arlington had applied for any state or federal stimulus money related to the pandemic bailout.
“I don’t have that direct answer for you, Mr. Commissioner, but I’m happy to get that shortly after this meeting,” Petrillo said.
McCauley sounded incredulous that a track president wouldn’t know if his own business had stimulus money in the pipeline, so he asked Petrillo if he’d like to clarify.
“Arlington itself as an individual entity did not apply,” Petrillo said, leaving it unclear about what assistance CDI might have sought.
When McCauley turned the topic toward Arlington’s master plan for opening, Petrillo replied that his team has diligently filed the proper paperwork with the state, but that reopening with spectators “is in the hands of the governor’s office.” He added that the state, county, and local health boards also have a say in the matter.
This prompted McCauley to want to know if such multi-level governmental involvement has been a legitimate burden to getting other venues up and running, so he asked executives from Hawthorne Race Course to testify. They detailed how Hawthorne has a spectator-free harness meet re-opening plan ready to go that they believe will be green-lighted. They stressed that their experience with other agencies has been fluid and cooperative, and that Hawthorne is willing to lose some money on its harness meet if it betters the overall industry in the long run.
McCauley noted that the same state and county officials that are overseeing Hawthorne’s plan will also oversee Arlington’s, and that only the local board of health is different.
There was no formal vote on the agenda pertaining to Arlington’s opening, but the IRB did unanimously approve that Arlington would be granted dark-host simulcasting status until the next IRB meeting. McCauley explained after the vote that he voted yes on this matter with the consideration that the date of that June 18 meeting be moved up to discuss the Arlington issue further.
“People rely on at least a certain amount of responsiveness. Folks deserve whatever level of certainty they can get in these very uncertain times. And I really think you can do better by providing it,” McCauley told Petrillo. “To me, it’s hard to reconcile why these other racetracks in other jurisdictions can operate and we can’t even get a response as to when you might operate and under what conditions.”