By T. D. Thornton
The Illinois Racing Board (IRB) on Tuesday averted a showdown on 2020 race dates by unanimously voting in a statewide schedule that includes a 68-date, Apr. 27-Sep. 30 Thoroughbred season at Arlington International Racecourse.
But the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) expressed consternation and befuddlement over the decision, because too many unanswered questions about the future of Arlington’s racing are still up in the air.
The entire Illinois racing community had been in crisis mode for the past week over whether or not Arlington—the showcase venue on the two-track Chicago circuit—would race in 2020.
Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), which owns Arlington, stunned Illinois horsemen last month by intentionally missing a deadline to apply for recently legalized racino licensure that would have bolstered purses at the track.
The decision took on an added layer of 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 the corporation used the horsemen’s support to get gaming legislation passed, but is now abandoning the idea of operating a racino at Arlington over concerns that gaming there will hurt the bottom line at its existing and proposed casinos.
At a Sept. 17 race dates hearing, the IRB verbally grilled CDI executives over the corporation’s apparent lack of commitment to Thoroughbred racing at Arlington, postponed its vote on 2020 dates, and gave CDI a mandate to come back before the board in a week’s time to demonstrate some form of long-term dedication to racing in Illinois.
(By contrast, Hawthorne Race Course and Fairmount Park, the state’s two other Thoroughbred tracks, are both swiftly moving ahead with the licensing and construction phases of their purse-boosting racinos, which were made possible by the June passage of the Illinois Gaming Act.)
At Tuesday’s hearing, CDI executives once again faced difficult big-picture questions from commissioners about the corporation’s long-term intentions for Arlington. Largely though, the CDI executives who spoke under oath did not budge from a publicly stated stance against applying for racino licensure.
So after listening to more than an hour’s worth of testimony, the IRB’s vote to go ahead and grant Arlington 2020 dates primarily came down to a consensus among board members that not having any racing at Arlington next year would likely inflict more harm than good on the racing circuit and the state.
Thus, the IRB ended up not disallowing Arlington’s race dates, as it implicitly threatened to do last week.
Nor did the board include any type of forward-thinking stipulations or requirements that pertained to Arlington’s future when the motion for race dates came to the floor for a vote.
“If you look at this as a soap opera, we had left in the last episode with the racing board telling Arlington that they had a week to come back and demonstrate a dedication to racing, and preferably a commitment to applying for the gaming license,” David McCaffrey, the ITHA’s executive director, told TDN via phone after the meeting. “But the very first thing [CDI] said is ‘We are not going to apply for the gaming license.’ That was a down moment for us, because we thought that they were going to be pressed hard on that issue.”
Another factor that contributed to commissioners voting to give Arlington the go-ahead to race in 2020 was that CDI and several commissioners stated a belief that the gaming-enhanced era of Illinois racing won’t truly start until 2021 (because the racinos have to get up and running) and that the IRB’s decision on the race dates applications on Tuesday only applied to 2020.
“It is very important to keep in mind that, realistically, the first gaming license has not been issued,” said IRB chairman Jeffrey Brincat prior to voting on the 2020 dates motion. “The first shovelful of dirt has not been turned, nor has the first wager been dropped and executed.”
But the ITHA’s McCaffrey strongly disagreed with that line of reasoning. He pointed out that both Hawthorne and Fairmount expect to be bolstering purses with gaming revenues by the fourth quarter of 2020, and the IRB’s voting on 2020 race dates should reflect that expectation.
“It’s a stunningly superficial understanding of the sport to say something like that because breeders, owners and horsemen make their plans based on what the future looks like,” McCaffrey said. “If Arlington had committed to a gaming license like Hawthorne had, it would have had a gigantic 2020 effect on recruiting, people going out to buy horses, and future breeding plans.”
IRB commissioner Thomas McCauley, who on Sept. 17 had chastised CDI for lacking “any regard for social responsibility whatsoever” preceded his affirmative vote on race dates by explaining that he now believed that the multi-year agreement that has been in place between Arlington and Hawthorne to maintain a shared racing circuit “ought to be given a lot of weight, at least for 2020,” he said.
“At this point, there would be so much disruption with respect to [horse] workers’ lives if this schedule materially changed that I’m going to vote yes,” McCauley added.
Bradley Blackwell, CDI’s senior vice president and general counsel, fielded the bulk of questioning from IRB commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting. Although he affirmed statements that CDI made in a press release last week about being committed to racing at Arlington in 2020 and 2021, Blackwell often relied on corporate-speak responses (“we can only speak to what we’ve said publicly, and about our commitment to find a solution here”) when commissioners pressed him on issues related to CDI’s intentions and future strategies for Arlington.
At one point under questioning from McCauley—who eventually began to show hints of frustration when his direct queries were sidestepped—Blackwell wouldn’t even agree to the broad statement that higher purses are generally in the best interest of Illinois racing.
“I can’t go into detail what’s in the best interest of Illinois racing…” Blackwell started to reply.
But his testimony was immediately drowned out by a chorus of objections from horsemen at the heavily attended meeting, prompting Brincat to threaten the horsemen with removal if they interrupted a speaker again.
“It was the most obnoxious comment I’ve ever heard,” the ITHA’s McCaffrey said of Blackwell’s take on the importance of purses. “And what does the chairman of the racing board do? He admonishes us for being out of line.”
Prior to voting, IRB commissioners lobbed several ideas at CDI officials that they suggested might demonstrate a commitment to racing. One idea—previously advocated by the ITHA—involved CDI giving back the “recapture” money that it has been legally allowed to reclaim from the purse account. For 2020, the estimated figure is about $4.5 million.
That suggestion did not strike CDI executives as financially appealing, and they would not commit to doing so.
Another IRB commissioner suggested even something as seemingly innocuous as CDI restoring Hawthorne’s former Illinois Derby to the “Road to the GI Kentucky Derby” schedule to bring a bit of national attention to the state. But that idea too was politely rebuffed by CDI officials.
“When push came to shove today, [CDI] was basically asked how they would demonstrate commitment to all of these options,” McCaffrey said. “Gaming license? Recapture? Illinois Derby? And they said, ‘Nope, nope, nope.’ Then the racing board granted them the license anyway. I can’t explain it. My hands are figuratively in the air wondering what [the one-week voting delay] was all about.”
Hawthorne was awarded a 37-date autumn race meet (its traditional spring meet is on a one-year hiatus to allow for racino construction). Fairmount Park, 300 miles downstate, will race 60 dates in 2020.