By T. D. Thornton
Citing distrust in Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), the gaming corporation that owns Arlington International Racecourse, the leadership of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) on Sept. 16 asked the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) to impose a condition on 2021 race dates that would withhold millions of dollars in purse fund “recapture” money from the track if it did not end up racing its applied-for 68 days next year.
The IRB, which was meeting with three newly appointed commissioners for the first time on Wednesday, probed Arlington president Tony Petrillo about CDI’s intentions for racing in suburban Chicago in 2021 and beyond.
Board members specifically wanted clarification on earnings-call comments made July 30 by Bill Carstanjen, the chief executive officer of CDI, that said the corporation will honor its 2021 race meet contract with the ITHA “if we elect to do so” and that the Arlington property “will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point.”
But after the IRB received advice from its attorney that statutory provisions covering recapture don’t allow the attachment of such a stipulation to dates orders, board members voted 6-0 to grant Arlington’s schedule with no strings attached.
The IRB also unanimously approved 2021 racing at Hawthorne Racecourse for 50 dates. Since 2016, the two Chicago-area tracks, Arlington and Hawthorne, have presented a unified race dates and dark-day host status template for the IRB’s approval.
Fairmount Park, which is 350 miles south and not considered part of that Chicago circuit, got its requested 53 dates.
Prior to the ITHA’s request for the recapture provision, Petrillo told the IRB that Arlington anticipates “running eight races per day during those 68 days and being able to offer a purse structure that will allow us to attract a sufficient horse population to fill those races, as well as conducting a stakes schedule that is necessary to support a long race meet over five months over the most competitive time of the year.”
John Walsh, Hawthorne’s assistant general manager, said the 10-month Chicago circuit arrangement “is good for the industry. The horsemen will have a place to be, and they’ll have something to look forward to in 2022 as we hopefully finish our casino sometime toward the end of next year.”
But despite the news of apparent accord, ITHA representatives made it clear the horse community didn’t have 100% faith that CDI would follow through on its contracted commitment to 2021 racing.
ITHA executives cited last year’s stunning decision by CDI to intentionally miss a deadline to apply for newly legalized racino licensure that would have bolstered purses at the track, plus an acrimonious eight-month battle with Arlington over recently inked contracts for 2020 and 2021.
“[Arlington saying] that they’re going to run in 2021 after the difficult time with the contract we had this year, that’s purposeful. It’s meaningful. We’re grateful for that,” said ITHA president Michael Campbell. “However, Arlington is the organizational licensee. CDI is not. And CDI will do whatever is in their best interest to fulfill their [corporate] fiduciary responsibility. And that’s a problem for us given [the disconnection] that we are greatly concerned about. We cannot go through another year as horsemen [with] even the possibility that there’s going to be some disruption or the cancellation of the racing season.”
David McCaffrey, the ITHA’s executive director, then made the request for the recapture provision.
“It’s not meant to be antagonistic or provocative in any way. And there really shouldn’t be any resistance, in my judgment, on Arlington’s part if their intention is to truly race,” McCaffrey said. “Because if they race, this would be meaningless. [It] would at least give some surety to the horsemen. Or, if for some reason, the meet doesn’t happen, at least it preserves the $4.5 million in recapture that would be taken out of the purse account.”
IRB chairman Daniel Beiser asked Petrillo to clarify CDI’s intentions for 2021 and beyond. But the Arlington president’s drawn-out reply was vague and laden with corporate-speak.
“Although 2022 will be here before we know it, there is some time needed to sort this out,” Petrillo said, in part. “And I know that these conversations have come up daily within the confines of the strategic team at Churchill Downs. And I know that they are working on some solutions. What they are at this time I don’t think that anybody could comment on publicly on that right now. But we…do feel our responsibility to the industry as well as the community. And we intend to fulfill that in 2021, and beyond that when the opportunity does exist.”
Beiser, after considering the ITHA’s request to use recapture payments as a cudgel for compliance, asked if Petrillo could provide written clarification from CDI regarding the gaming corporation’s intentions for Arlington.
Petrillo replied that the IRB would get that written assurance in the form of a signed dates acceptance letter that licensees are required to submit to the commission after getting dates orders. He bristled at the proposed “unprecedented conditions” over recapture that “might cause a flurry of legal matters to arise.”
Petrillo continued: “I think we’re opening up a can of issues that then also impede upon the agreement that we have with the horsemen’s association. Again, I just want to reiterate that it is our intent to race in 2021. When that acceptance is signed, that’s written in stone. If we do not comply, the IRB has a number of mechanisms to try and enforce that acceptance or penalize Arlington if there’s a failure to fulfill those commitments.”
Beiser again told Petrillo he’d prefer a separate form of written commitment. The IRB then recessed and voted upon the slate of dates after hearing advice from the board’s attorney. It was noted that while the IRB doesn’t have the authority to attach the recapture stipulations to the dates order, it does have the power to set the recapture payment schedule, and board could consider that when it certifies recapture payment amounts in January. But that would be nearly four months before the track even opens for racing.
Next year will see the return of a spring Thoroughbred meet at Hawthorne (Mar. 6-Apr. 25), which had been cancelled this season to allow for racino construction at the property.
Arlington’s dates will span Apr. 30-Sept. 25.
Hawthorne races again in the autumn, Oct. 1-Dec. 26.
Fairmount races Apr. 27-Sept. 6.
The actual race dates were awarded in blocks. The days cited above account for the dark days at the beginnings and ends of meets that were indicated in each track’s application.