Shutdown of Illinois Racing Fuels Tempers, Strains Relations

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Coady

Arlington Park and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) remain bitterly deadlocked over months-long contract negotiations for the now-delayed 2020 meet.

Both sides understand that the scheduled May 1 start of racing isn’t going to happen because of COVID-19 restrictions, which tightened further Thursday when Illinois extended a statewide stay-at-home order through May.

But the new sticking point, which emerged during testimony at Friday’s Illinois Racing Board (IRB) tele-meeting, centers on the horsemen wanting to ink a only a one-year deal because of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, while track management’s latest offer is for the standard two-year contract both sides agreed to in recent seasons.

Separately, another rift is brewing that threatens the longer-term status of racing in the Chicago area for 2020: Management at Hawthorne Race Course asked the IRB to establish a “working equalization group” to possibly modify the rest of this year’s race dates and simulcast hosting status, which is a chief revenue source for purses. Arlington officials told the IRB they are not opposed to engaging in informal discussions with Hawthorne, but balked at having negotiations mandated.

Hawthorne and Arlington officials sparred back and forth over the matter, which also has a humanitarian component: Earlier this year, Hawthorne agreed to house both Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds on its backstretch. It currently has 200 of each breed stabled there, but the grooms and family members of Thoroughbred caretakers (444) right now far outnumber the harness staffers (80) who live in the on-site dorms.

Hawthorne expected the Thoroughbred horses and workers to have already moved over to Arlington by this point in the year, but they remain stuck at Hawthorne because the local board of health won’t allow Arlington’s backstretch to open. Hawthorne wants to get ready to resume its spring/summer harness meet that got shut down when the coronavirus hit, and track management wants those backstretch amenities to be available to incoming Standardbred personnel.

“I think we all have to realize that this [COVID-19] situation has created an atmosphere where there is a lot of unknown,” said new IRB chairman Daniel Beiser, who was moderating the board’s first public meeting since his predecessor and two other commissioners resigned in February after allegedly making illegal political contributions. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like for the horsemen, for the track owners. We’re all in this ‘We don’t know’ set of mind.”

Horsemen gave their take on the Arlington contract negotiations first. Trainer Chris Block, an ITHA board of directors member, said that the latest offer from Arlington for a 45-day meet to run July 4-Sep. 26 was “welcome news,” especially considering that the track agreed to transfer $1.6 million from the $3.3 million stakes budget to bolster the overnight purse account.

Block said the ITHA was ready to sign that deal, but the “big problem” was that Arlington was asking for the two-year contract, with terms and conditions for 2021 to be “open-ended,” with no assurance about the number of race dates and the level of purses.

David McCaffrey, the ITHA’s executive director, explained that “[Thursday] we sent back a contract proposal to Arlington that just focused on the 2020 meet. We thought that was pertinent and the way to do things because, heck, things change every six hours [because of he pandemic] let alone six months or two years from now. So this notion of a second-year contract with no specifics and no parameters, I think most people would agree that’s got to be a non-starter.”

ITHA president Michael Campbell said that another key issue was that Arlington management has yet to assure horsemen that it would be willing to race spectator-free, like other tracks (including Churchill Downs, which has the same corporate ownership as Arlington) have committed to do.

“If Arlington chooses to race, it’s still very important to know if they’re willing to race spectator-free,” Campbell said. “This is a question that has to be answered. I wish somebody would ask that of Arlington Park, because I think it’s critical. We all know how dependent they are on [live customers]. That’s fine. That’s part of their business model. But our business model is racing horses.”

When one of the commissioners did put that question directly to Arlington president Tony Petrillo, he answered in a roundabout way by citing the math behind the calculation of purses.

“We have looked at the possibility of running without spectators,” Petrillo said. “In order to achieve purse levels this year of somewhere between $150,000 and $164,000 based on a 45-day race meet, we would almost have to double [the 2019 all-sources handle]. We would estimate that we would need about $235 to $250 million wagered on our races to be able to sustain those purse levels, so [that means] almost essentially doubling [all-source wagering] from last year without any on-track wagering.”

Campbell expressed another concern: Instead of running a weeks-long meet, he fears Arlington might just try to race for a few days in a festival format anchored by the GI Arlington Million, which annually gets carded in August.

“We need to give some [assurance] to our membership if we’re going to race horses at Arlington Park at some point,” Campbell said. “And it can’t be just on Million Day. I can foresee an opportunity for them–if that’s what you want to call it–to just race during the two or three days for the Million…. It’s possible they could mothball the whole meet. We just want someone to give us some assessment of what their priorities are.”

Petrillo said Campbell’s Million scenario was based on “unfounded figures” that Arlington has yet to see.

“A month-long might be a possibility,” Petrillo added. “It’s not something that we have explored at this point. But it’s not something that we’ve discounted.”

Regarding the ITHA’s desire to agree on just a 2020 contract, Petrillo said, “The first time that we learned of a one-year agreement position in writing from the ITHA was [Thursday]. We’ve always tried to work from a very basic agreement that has been used for the last several years and has worked for us. However, each time there’s a counter-proposal there [are] new conditions put into the agreement… We seem to narrow some issues down. We seem to open other issues up.”

The IRB voted unanimously to give formal approval for a delay in Arlington’s season because of the pandemic. It will re-examine the situation when it next meets May 22, which is eight days before the state’s stay-at-home order expires.

Hawthorne president and general manager Tim Carey lobbied for the formation of the work group among tracks, horsemen, and the IRB, but the board instead opted to have staffers look into the possibility of such a confab while the stakeholders were encouraged to talk it out.

“What happens to our fall [Thoroughbred] meet?” Carey asked rhetorically. “Anything that Arlington does has a reverberating basis to our fall meet and what we’re going to do. The fact that we’re down $2 million in purses right now certainly is going to hurt what we are going to do in the fall.”

Carey said last year’s Hawthorne-Arlington agreement that divided host-status dates and the live racing calendar made sense then, but the economic landscape is different now because of the pandemic.

“We are aggressively trying to open up this harness meet,” Carey said. “We’ve been damaged the first four months. We were the host. We lost host status. Arlington received the January/February [host] time frame. They’ve made millions. We’ve lost millions. That’s the reality of the economic situation right now.”

Petrillo interjected: “Wait a minute. Please, Tim, don’t categorize us as making millions. We have lost $2 million in the first quarter of the year. Even if we run a race meet, we’re still going to lose another million dollars.”

Petrillo also took umbrage with Carey’s characterization that the Thoroughbreds and workers housed at Hawthorne are somehow interfering with the ability to restart the harness season.

“The Standardbred race meet did commence with Thoroughbreds on the [grounds at Hawthorne] so I’m not sure how that is an encumbrance to resuming a Standardbred meet,” Petrillo said.

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