By T. D. Thornton
A deal for a 30-date race meet spanning July 23-Sept. 30 at Arlington International Race Course was being finalized on Wednesday with the goal of having a signed contract between the track and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) in place prior to Thursday morning’s Illinois Racing Board (IRB) meeting, during which the late and curtailed 2020 season could be approved.
On Wednesday afternoon, Arlington issued a notice on Twitter that read, in part, “Arlington and the ITHA have reached a tentative agreement for the 2020 and 2021 race meets. Final details of the agreement are being drafted and are expected to be signed later [Wednesday].”
TDN could not immediately reach ITHA spokespersons to confirm the negotiations. But the Daily Herald of suburban Chicago ran a story earlier Wednesday quoting ITHA president Mike Campbell as saying, “At this hour, we have a tentative agreement. The devil could prove to be in the details.”
Campbell said that Arlington’s corporate owner, Churchill Downs Inc., has attorneys “generating the initial draft as we speak, which will then be reviewed by our attorneys and our contract committee. I am hopefully optimistic all will be done in time for tomorrow’s meeting of the IRB.”
The Arlington notice stated the expected racing schedule would be Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays with 2 p.m. (Central) post time. The stable area would open “on or before” July 6.
The Daily Herald story reported that the agreement calls for no stakes program in 2020, including the track’s signature race, the GI Arlington Million.
If the above details are correct, the agreement doesn’t seem noticeably different from the offer that Arlington proposed but the ITHA rejected as recently as June 8, when the two sides last aired their contract differences at a special IRB meeting that had been called to address the stalemate. That meeting was preceded by a weekend-long contract negotiation session mandated and mediated by the IRB.
The only apparent difference in the terms seems to be that the ITHA is now willing to accept what its leadership described 10 days ago as the main sticking point: Arlington wanted a contract signed for both 2020 and 2021, while the ITHA only wanted to ink a one-year deal.
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 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 law–which has no stated penalty for not complying–the two sides have been deadlocked on a deal since late 2019.
Beyond the issue of no contract being in place, the COVID-19 pandemic also complicated and delayed the meet beyond its planned May 1 opening. The season was originally supposed to run for 68 dates until Sept. 30.