Letter to the Editor: Mike Campbell

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Arlington Park | Coady

Mike Campbell is president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association representatives tried last week during eight hours of negotiations with Arlington Park and parent company Churchill Downs to reach a reasonable agreement on a contract that would provide adequate funding for overnight purses at Arlington in 2020. But Arlington and Churchill offered only what could charitably be described as proposals made in bad faith.

The ITHA is deeply disappointed. And if Arlington’s past actions serve as any guide to its steps in the coming weeks, we are bracing for an attempt by Churchill and Arlington to castigate Illinois owners and trainers–the men and women whose considerable financial investment and efforts underpin the success of our sport and industry–as the scapegoat for what is squarely a spectacular failure on the part of Churchill and Arlington to demonstrate any meaningful commitment to the future of live Thoroughbred racing in Illinois.

Churchill is the same corporation that, following two decades of lobbying state lawmakers for the authority to develop Arlington as a racino, declined to even apply for the racino license that lawmakers granted as part of the gaming expansion law approved last year. The intent of that new law was to boost overnight purses and otherwise invigorate the growth of Thoroughbred horse racing in this state for the purpose of creating jobs, sparking economic opportunity and diversifying the tax base for the state and local communities. But having purchased the majority stake in the nearby Rivers Casino, Churchill opted instead to abandon that racino pursuit and shield Rivers from the prospect of competition that might result from casino-style gaming at Arlington.

Churchill’s disdain for live racing knows no bounds. It has shown not only that it will make no commitment to horse racing beyond that which is minimally required by law–as evidenced by its refusal to adequately fund the overnight purses at Arlington this year–but also that it will not bother to follow even the plain letter of the law.

Last year, Churchill failed to comply with a state law requiring that Arlington agree to a contract with the horsemen’s association by Dec. 31. Thereafter, Arlington doubled down by applying with the Illinois Gaming Board for a sports betting license–notwithstanding another state law that says any applicant for a sports betting license must comply “with all federal, state and local laws.”

Now, in what should give pause to horsemen across America, Churchill appears poised to violate the federal Interstate Horse Racing Act by threatening to take wagers on a signal for which there might be no broadcast. And, if it follows through on its parallel threat to conduct racing without a contract with the horsemen’s association, it would uproot the most basic understanding between management and horsemen that a contract must exist, for racing to occur, between the horsemen’s association and the track.

And so, Illinois horsemen are compelled to reiterate that adequate funding of overnight purses at Arlington this year is well within Churchill’s reach. Indeed, Churchill must only abandon its plan to divert from the purse account nearly half of the funds earmarked for overnight purses.

As it stands, Arlington intends to send more than 44% of those funds not to those actively supporting the Illinois racing industry–but to Churchill, its out-of-state corporate owner, and to individuals not committed to Illinois:

  • An estimated $17.7 million will be earned for purses at Arlington in 2020.
  • Arlington plans to give $4.5 million of that money to Churchill as a cash subsidy (“recapture”) to use however it may please.
  • Arlington would then devote another approximately $3.3 million to subsidize open stakes.
  • After that, and accounting for a fraction of purse funds that Illinois horsemen have set aside to support the ITHA’s services and efforts to advocate for live racing opportunities in Illinois, only about $9.1 million would remain for overnight purses in 2020.
  • Overnight purses on average each day this year would then amount to only an estimated $133,000, according to the ITHA’s calculations.

Illinois horsemen are appalled by Churchill’s continued contempt for live racing and the working men and women, from backstretch workers to breeders, who have committed themselves to Illinois racing and who depend on overnight purses to support themselves and their families.

Churchill’s plan to divert $7.8 million from the horsemen’s purse account is all the more egregious given rising concern that handle–and, by extension, purses earned during dark time–could drop precipitously at Arlington and other tracks across North America this year if track attendance and wagering suffer amid fears related to the coronavirus. A massive money grab from overnight purses that directly support Illinois jobs could not come at a worse time.

Our owner members have invested an estimated $100 million in the race horses stabled at Arlington and Hawthorne Race Course. Additionally, we spend more than $40 million annually to keep those horses trained. And every four or five years, we replace and replenish retiring horses (thereby re-investing another $100 million). Under Arlington’s 2020 plan for the purse account, horsemen committed to this state’s racing industry would be racing at that track for a substantial–and unacceptable–loss.

No future meeting concerning a contract has yet been scheduled. But the ITHA will continue to urge Churchill to abandon its misguided plan and to instead devote those purse dollars for their intended purpose–support of Illinois jobs.

We stand with Illinois jobs. Arlington Park should, too.

 

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