No Deal for Arlington Meet

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Arlington Park | FourFootedFotos

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Weekend-long contract negotiations that were supposed to result in a last-ditch effort to salvage the 2020 meet at Arlington Park did not result in a deal that was acceptable to both the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (ITHA) and track management. The chief sticking point, as it has been since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is Arlington's insistence on a two-year contract, while the ITHA wants to ink terms for only one year.

As a result, the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) on Monday morning declined to vote on awarding race dates to Chicago's premier Thoroughbred venue. It had convened a “special” meeting just for that purpose June 5, then carried the meeting over to June 8 pending the result of the weekend talks. Now, with the contract still more than five months overdue according to state law, the IRB won't take up the issue again until its regularly scheduled June 18 meeting.

“Everybody should be aware that Illinois is bleeding horse population right now,” said IRB commissioner Thomas McCauley, who mediated the weekend negotiation sessions. “Horsemen just don't know what's happening, and the main reason we wanted the special meeting was to get some certainty before the regular meeting 10 days from now.

“We feel strongly that every day that the uncertainty remains is a hardship to Illinois horsemen and everybody who depends on the industry in Illinois for a livelihood,” McCauley continued. “I urge all of us to keep that in mind as a backdrop to, in my view, critically urgent negotiations and the dire need for a conclusion one way or the other. So [an IRB decision on dates] won't go beyond June 18 in my mind. And I'm sorry that it's going that long. But it can't possibly go any further than that–there won't be any horses left.”

McCauley and the IRB's executive director, Domenic DiCera, sat in on talks between the two parties at a neutral location (Hawthorne Race Course) for five hours on Saturday. The ITHA was represented by its executive director, David McCaffrey, and trainer and board of directors member Chris Block. Arlington president Tony Petrillo represented the track. Larry Rivelli, the perennial standings-topping trainer at Arlington, also participated.

“During the course of the first four hours, a number of issues were resolved, and at the four-hour mark we had one left,” McCauley explained. “So there was optimism that that would be resolved.”

The two sides agreed on a 30-date race meet with no purse money allocated to stakes races for 2020.

“If it were only going to be a one-year agreement, I think it would be largely done and the parties could proceed,” McCauley said. But, he added, “It was very important to Arlington to have a two-year agreement, and so the focus of the conversation was, 'Well, what happens in 2021?'”

McCauley said the crux of the talks came down to “the issue of how much of the [net] purse money generated by handle…would be used for purposes of funding overnight purses, and then what portion [and when] would [that money] be used to fund stakes races.”

McCauley said that, in particular, Arlington wanted assurance that it could schedule two of its three calling-card Grade I stakes, the Arlington Million and Beverly D., in 2021.

The two parties met again Sunday for another 2 1/2 hours to focus on that one issue, followed by a flurry of emails and calls that went into night and early Monday morning.

Yet, McCauley said, “We remain unresolved on that one issue.”

After hearing McCauley's briefing, IRB chairman Daniel Beiser said, “I guess it's safe to say that there is no agreement in place at this point. Therefore, we will not be acting on this request today. We'll be deferring it to the next meeting, which is June 18. Hopefully these talks will continue, and there will be a resolution to this.”

Petrillo was granted the floor to speak, but he did not address the deadlock or the reasons behind it. Instead, he lauded the IRB and thanked McCauley and DiCera for their “relentless efforts and commitment” in providing a “voice of reason and stability” during the negotiations.

The ITHA's McCaffrey spoke right after that, explaining that, “We would look foolish if we didn't say the same thing. And it's obvious that the effort was there. And I'll even go one step further than what Tony said, and that is that I'll even say that the effort was there on the part of Arlington, because these were arduous meetings.”

The relationship between Arlington and the ITHA has been contentious for several years now. But the split widened considerably last August when Arlington management stunned Illinois horsemen by intentionally missing a deadline to apply for a racino license after more than a decade of working with horsemen to get the Illinois Gaming Act passed as a way to boost purses via other forms of betting.

Arlington's decision not to pursue slot machines and table games at the track took on heightened controversy because Arlington's corporate parent, Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), has an ownership stake in a nearby competing casino and is aiming to open another near Chicago.

Horsemen have stated a belief that CDI doesn't want Arlington competing with its own (and potentially more lucrative) venues. Last summer, CDI cited the racino law's requirement of having to contribute gaming revenues to the Thoroughbred purse account as a competitive disadvantage it did not want to undertake.

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.”

Despite that new law–which has no stated penalty for not complying–the two sides have stalemated on a deal since late 2019.

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