By T. D. Thornton
One month to the date that Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), announced that it intends to sell Arlington International Racecourse near Chicago for “non-horse racing” purposes, the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) Tuesday had its first chance at an open, public meeting to weigh in on that potentially devastating decision.
Yet instead of addressing head-on the prospect of Arlington vanishing or proposing ways in which regulators might help to salvage the state's signature Thoroughbred track, the eight IRB commissioners treated the most pressing Illinois racing issue in decades as the proverbial “elephant in the room” by almost entirely avoiding it when the board met via remote conference Mar. 23.
It was only after sailing through 35 minutes of rubber-stamping of non-critical agenda items that a single commissioner brought up the topic of CDI's plans to dump Arlington to an entity that would raze the track for development while the gaming corporation seeks to transfer its racing license to a more cost-effective location that won't compete with its conflicting ownership of a nearby casino.
And while new commissioner Alan Henry (appointed just six weeks ago) did read into the record a prepared statement that termed CDI's decision to abandon Arlington “ultimately a short-sighted and self-defeating posture,” his remarks were met by silence and inaction from fellow commissioners before the meeting was quickly adjourned.
So which pressing issues did the IRB actually deal with Tuesday?
Among the six voting items, the board spent the most time approving a list of 2021 racing officials for Arlington, Hawthorne Race Course and Fairmount Park, a process made unnecessarily laborious by reading into the record the names and titles of every licensee from track presidents on down to the outriders and clockers.
Also, new officials at a totalizator company were sworn in so they could offer “testimony,” which amounted to them just introducing themselves. Commissioners limited their under-oath queries of them to a couple of polite questions relating to how many new local jobs the company might create.
Agenda item No. 8 looked like it might generate some Arlington-related sparks because it dealt with amending the certification of the purse recapture funding the IRB had approved for Arlington at the January meeting.
You may recall that over the past year, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (ITHA) has been imploring the IRB to withhold that $4.9 million in escrow as a way of ensuring that CDI runs the entirety of its dates allotment in 2021.
But the recapture funds were not to be used as a cudgel of compliance Tuesday. Instead, the IRB just needed to correct a sizable math error it made back in January, voting to reduce the amount allotted to Arlington by $850,764. That mistake only came to light after it was caught by the ITHA, which formally reported it to the IRB last week, thereby returning that money to the purse account.
After that, IRB chairman Daniel Beiser cracked a belated St. Patrick's Day joke that fell flat, and several IRB members used their allotted opportunities during “commissioner comments” to update each other on the status of their personal COVID-19 vaccinations.
It was then that Henry dared to impose reality upon the proceedings, shattering the board's silence on Arlington's demise by reading a statement that said, in part:
“While CDI's stock is currently riding high, the corporate graveyard is full of companies whose leaders lost sight of their brand, and in doing so, lost the loyalty of their customers. The facts here are clear: On its current trajectory, CDI intends to shut down for good what is generally viewed as the most beautiful racing facility in the country, produce massive collateral damage across the Thoroughbred and Standardbred industries statewide, and continue to generate a rising tide of ill will among horseplayers nationwide.
“That is a really bad look when the foundation of your brand is horse racing,” Henry said.
“First Hollywood Park was bulldozed. Then racing at Calder was leased out. Now Arlington Park has been deemed disposable. In the long run, a company that trumpets its bond to horse racing and wants to keep the brand in good standing across all its platforms has to respect current horseplayers and keep attracting new ones. To do that, you've got to honor the horse and the horsemen and mean it. And that starts by keeping tracks open, not closing them down.”
Henry continued: “We all know that CDI's intransigence about not selling Arlington Park to a racing concern is in part about protecting [its interest in the competing] Rivers Casino. But does a nasty divorce from Arlington protect CDI from the wrath of legions of horseplayers, both locally and around the country? Not from where I sit…
“The bad news for CDI is that the bad news is travelling quickly. What I'm hearing from very irate horseplayers is talk about dumping their state-licensed Twin Spires advance deposit wagering accounts. They are equally incensed when they read that CDI brashly talks about relocating Arlington's racing license to another undetermined venue, as if it's their license to relocate, which it's not.
Henry summed up: “Here then, is a thought for CDI's consideration as alternative solutions are sought. Recalibrate and facilitate a seamless and graceful transition of racetrack ownership. By doing so, you'll be sending a message loud and clear to the racing industry statewide and to the racing community nationwide that you are actually committed to the sport and firmly bound to your company's roots.”
Beiser thanked Henry for his comments. But instead of using those salient points to open up a dialogue about what the board could do to try and save Arlington, the IRB chairman instead opted for passive aggression.
While taking care to not once utter the word “Arlington,” Beiser gushingly thanked executives at Fairmount at Hawthorne for infusing a “new sense of excitement into the sport” by implementing the racino licensure that Illinois granted to tracks in 2019.
“These are two good examples of people who are committed to helping Illinois horse racing,” Besier said.
The IRB chairman left it up to listeners to fill in his implied blanks about CDI not pursuing its own racino at Arlington in 2019–which can now be directly traced back as the first adversarial act toward horsemen that led to the gaming corporation's eventual decision to abandon the sport at Chicago's landmark track.