For the second consecutive day–and for the fourth time in two weeks–the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) on Friday had to put off voting on the fate of the nearly two-month overdue 2020 season at Arlington International Race Course.
That's because the track and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (ITHA) still can't come to terms on a signed contract for the meet, which is a requirement before the commission can award race dates.
What has been a tense negotiating process for the better part of nine months (with four blown IRB-mandated deadlines this June alone) devolved into a new realm of chaos during the June 19 teleconference: Arlington sent its version of a final, signed contract to the ITHA during–not before–Friday's IRB meeting to approve the deal.
Then when the ITHA's legal team scrambled to get a first read of that document during a hastily called recess, they realized that sometime during frenzied back-and-forth rounds of editing over the last 24 hours, different versions of the deal had gotten mixed up, making it difficult to know whether issues important to both sides got incorporated into the near-final version.
“So now we're totally at odds, like, 'Holy cow, what's going on here?'” Kerry Lavelle, an attorney for the ITHA, told the IRB after discovering the botched documents. “You can see while scratching your head [how] the veracity of the whole process starts to break down, because we don't know what's going on.”
IRB chairman Daniel Beiser didn't want to hear the details about the mix-up. He again recessed the meeting–which technically began on Thursday and had already been carried over to Friday–until Monday at 9 a.m. Central, at which time he vowed that the board would “one way or another come to conclusion on this item.”
But will the new Monday deadline be for real? Beiser had used nearly verbatim language on Thursday when the gave the ultimatum that Friday would be the absolute latest that the IRB would “finally dispose of this matter one way or the other.”
Arlington and the horsemen's group two sides have been sparring since last October over crafting this deal. By contrast, the ITHA claimed back in January that its 2020 race-meet contract negotiations with nearby Hawthorne Racecourse took only one hour to complete.
Talks lagged through early spring, then the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world. Arlington's previously scheduled May 1 opening date came and went without any horses being allowed to stable at suburban Chicago's premier track.
As Illinois emerged from the health lockdown, both parties realized time was running out on the prospects for a 2020 racing season. An IRB meeting to award dates on June 5 resulted in mandated weekend-long negotiations mediated by the IRB. But when that meeting resumed June 8, the two sides could still not come to terms on a contract.
On June 17 there appeared to be a breakthrough just in time for the IRB's meeting the next day, at which the Arlington dates were again on the agenda: The track issued a notice on Twitter Wednesday afternoon announcing that the two sides had reached a “tentative” deal for both 2020 and 2021 racing. According to the post, the 30-date 2020 meet would run July 23-Sep. 30. Additional reports said the two parties had agreed there would be no stakes program in 2020, including the track's signature race, the GI Arlington Million.
But the deal did not materialize in time for Thursday's IRB meeting, so a recess was granted until Friday in yet another last-ditch attempt to break the deadlock. There appeared to be two remaining issues—purse projections and a contingency for what would happen if Arlington didn't (or couldn't) race in 2021.
When the IRB reconvened at 1 p.m. Friday, IRB commissioner Thomas McCauley, who has been the board's lead mediator, explained that he believed both sides had agreed to resolve purse projections similar to the way salary arbitration hearings are conducted in pro baseball. Bu the two sides still had to agree on what would happen in the event that out-of-control circumstances (like a pandemic) kept Arlington from racing in 2021.
Arlington president Tony Petrillo then told commissioners that “We had sent a final, signed agreement over to the ITHA that addressed the reconciliation payment, which we feel is a final offer and should close this issue, and that's our current status.”
David McCaffrey, the ITHA's executive director, then was granted the floor. Appearing taken aback, he said he had no idea what Petrillo was talking about, because the ITHA had not received any such signed contract from Arlington before the meeting.
Yet as McCaffrey was speaking, the contract popped up in his email. He said it was time-stamped eight minutes after the meeting had begun.
“Does anyone see the unfairness in sending us a contract at 1:08 p.m. on a call that started at 1 p.m. and have me say yes or no?” an exasperated McCaffrey asked.
His words were met with silence by everyone else on the conference call.
“I don't know what to say, other than at one o'clock when I called into this meeting, despite all the feverish attempts that have been made over the last two or three weeks, we had a deal that we would agree to sign that was submitted this morning to the racing board. We will stand behind that. But I can't respond to something that was sent to me 10 minutes ago,” McCaffrey said.
Beiser called for a recess to allow the ITHA time to examine Arlington's latest offer. The break lasted 2 1/2 hours.
Upon resumption is when Lavelle notified the commissioners of the discrepancies between the contract drafts, explaining that the red-lining process had gone awry. He said his legal team did a comparison of what they believed to be the correct versions from each party to reach the “true version.”
But when the ITHA team did that, Lavelle said, it revealed that Arlington had included new blocks of language about force majeure that he had never seen before.
He emailed Petrillo before the meeting came back in session, who essentially told him “take it or leave it,” according to Lavelle.
“Our team needs some time to go through line by line to know what we're going to do, and we do intend to come through, probably like Monday, [with] improvements,” Lavelle said.
Beiser granted the two sides time for another weekend-long work session, and then gave Petrillo the opportunity to respond before recessing the meeting.
“In order to help the ITHA move forward in a more expeditious manner, the agreement that I signed is the agreement that they should be working off of,” Petrillo said. “We notified them of that at the time that that was sent. [Just for clarification, there are] no other documents.”