By T. D. Thornton
In a move that seemed to catch some industry stakeholders off guard Friday, the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) deferred voting on approving a long-awaited plan to belatedly start the 2020 race meet at Arlington International Racecourse, citing the lack of a contract between the track and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) as the sole reason.
Friday’s “special” meeting had been convened primarily for the purpose of getting Arlington back up and running after months of squabbling between the horsemen and the track, plus the COVID-19 pandemic that caused Arlington to miss its May 1 opening date.
Earlier this week, when the IRB announced the special meeting with Arlington as its focal point, it was reported that Arlington officials had suddenly reversed course and agreed to a spectator-free racing plan over a 30-date summer season with the entire stakes program–including the GI Arlington Million–on hiatus for 2020.
As recently as May 22, track officials had repeatedly stated to the IRB that their desire was not to commit to racing until Arlington could safely host fans, a stance that at least one commissioner and several ITHA officials blasted at the time as being unrealistic.
IRB chairman Daniel Beiser allowed the June 5 meeting to proceed through its public commentary period, then voting took place on the first three actionable agenda items, including one to grant Fairmount Park amended 2020 dates.
But when the highly anticipated Arlington dates plan came up, Beiser told stakeholders and fellow commissioners that the meeting would be recessed until Monday at 10 a.m., with the hope that the two sides could hammer out a contract in the span of a weekend after fighting over some sort of deal since last year.
“We don’t have an agreement between the parties,” Beiser said. “The question is that that agreement needs to be in place. It’s hopeful that this next 65-70 hours will be beneficial in that process, and we’re looking forward to them getting together and hopefully having a resolution to this impasse by the time we reconvene the meting on June 8.”
Arlington president Tony Petrillo was allowed to speak on the deferral decision right after Beiser announced it.
“I was hoping that the board would address this issue of our amended race schedule today,” Petrillo said. “I think everybody in this industry was very happy to know that we found a solution to race without spectators…and the prospect of hosting fans here at some time in the future led us to that solution.
“Delaying this decision today pushes us back another two days,” Petrillo continued, noting that the Arlington’s plan is predicated on having an agreement inked with the ITHA and having time to get the backstretch ready and employees re-hired. “To have another delay for [our employees and horsemen], it makes one very distraught….These are certainties the horsemen, the trainers, are looking for.”
The sweeping Illinois Gaming Act passed last June granted gaming privileges to the state’s racetracks, but Arlington stunned Illinois horsemen by intentionally missing an August deadline to apply for racino licensure. That decision took on added controversy because Arlington’s corporate parent, Churchill Downs, Inc., has an ownership stake in a nearby competing casino, and has stated an intent to open another near Chicago.
The Gaming Act also had a new requirement written into it that stated “A contract with the appropriate Thoroughbred or Standardbred horsemen organization shall be negotiated and signed by the organization licensee before the beginning of each calendar year.” But the two sides have stalemated on a deal since late 2019.
Petrillo closed his remarks by asking if the board would reconsider voting on the plan, citing the weekend delay as “one more hurdle that doesn’t need to be navigated.” He suggested the IRB could give conditional approval that hinged on pending negotiations, adding “that would put enough desire and circumstance on both parties to work this weekend to get to an agreement.”
Beiser said the deferral to Monday was already a done deal.
Commissioner Thomas McCauley went one step further, mandating that the two sparring parties meet at a neutral location–Hawthorne Race Course–at 10 a.m. Saturday to try to reach an agreement while sitting outdoors in folding chairs in the presence of McCauley and another IRB staffer.
McCauley also said Petrillo’s concern that the deferred vote would cost his track two days of prep time was “untenable” considering how long the two sides have already dragged out the negotiation process.
In a post-meeting phone interview, TDN asked David McCaffrey, the ITHA’s executive director, if it was realistic to expect that an agreement could be reached over the weekend after the parties have already spent eight difficult months trying to come to terms.
“That’s up to Arlington,” McCaffrey responded. “Fourteen days ago they said they could not race spectator-free. I believe under pressure to save their meet, they took another look at it and said, ‘Maybe we can race spectator-free.’ Because they run the risk of losing their host-track status, and I think that’s worrisome to them.
“The parameters are in place and we are on the same page for 2020,” McCaffrey continued. “If Arlington really cared about racing in Illinois, they would sign that deal for 2020 and we would be racing in 30 days.
“The obstacle here and is this crazy insistence that Arlington is putting on us to sign a second-year deal,” McCaffrey explained.
“Nobody knows what it’s going to look like next year. We don’t even know if they’re going to get dates next year,” McCaffrey said. “All sorts of crazy things could unfold, and if you look at the professional sports leagues, they’re just trying to get through this year. You don’t see baseball and basketball trying to figure out what next year’s schedule will look like. They’re just trying to do the best they can do this year, and that’s the position that we’re taking. It’s just too nebulous for 2021.”
The impasse over a one- or two-year deal is not a new snarl. At the Apr. 24 IRB meeting, the two sides aired their differences over it, with the horsemen claiming the pandemic has made it difficult to project that far ahead and Petrillo stating that the ITHA just sprang the desire for a one-year contract on him the day before.
During the June 5 meeting, Petrillo reiterated that “we have responded to a proposal that was submitted by the ITHA for a two-year agreement. Each year had five specific points to it. For this year, there’s only one really large issue and a couple minor issues [involving how soon training can start].” He underscored that he felt a deal was within reach.
McCaffrey said that 2020 at Arlington figures to be a difficult enough challenge on its own without trying to lock in terms for 2021.
“You have to understand, there’s no money right now in the purse account,” McCaffrey said. “Whatever we’ve generated from their host days up until now, they take in recapture. So we had $4.5 million as of May 10 in our purse account. Their recapture number, the amount that they are allowed [by state law] to take and put into their pockets for whatever they want to do with it, is $4.5 million. So our purse account right now is dead broke.”
Prior to the IRB’s decision to defer, Larry Rivelli, the perennial standings-topping trainer at Arlington, said during the public commentary period that he has personally contacted numerous other horsemen who would be fine with a form of a two-year deal so long as certain purse levels were guaranteed.
“I just wanted the board, [Petrillo], and the ITHA to know that I contacted 34 or 35 trainers, and we’re all in [agreement] with the 2020 purse structure of $130,000 to $150,000,” Rivelli said. “They all said yes. They also said in 2021, if and when that happens, and Arlington was able to maintain a $150,000 basement, so to say, of purses, that would be acceptable to the horsemen as well.”