The ITHA was encouraged by the productive tenor of recent discussions with officials representing Arlington Park and parent company Churchill Downs concerning a contract for the 2020 meet at Arlington. The track, for instance, agreed to reduce the purses for stakes races from $3.3 million to close to $1.5 million.
However, with our state’s stay-at-home order extended through the end of May, the entire landscape – as it relates to handle, purses and live racing opportunities – has changed. There will be no bets at OTBs, or on track, until June at the earliest. And when accounting for the time it will take to resume normal operations, it is reasonable now to assume that such wagering activity will not return to meaningful levels until mid-June at the earliest.
If Arlington’s meet is confined to just 30 days between mid-July and late September, and if handle remains down by a conservative estimate of 30% for the duration of the meet, then average daily overnight purses could total as little as $65,000. Such purse levels are unlikely to attract the horse population necessary to fill the cards and produce the racing meet.
The question now is whether Churchill, for the benefit of our sport and industry and the hundreds of men and women whose livelihood depends on live racing, will agree to forgo the taking of $4.5 million – its “recapture” – from the purse account. Churchill will either take those dollars from the purse account and send them to Kentucky for the benefit of its shareholders, or it will leave them in the purse account so that our state’s industry will have a chance at continuing through this year – and so that all the working men and women who depend on live racing in Illinois will themselves have a chance to earn a living.
That $4.5 million in “recapture” could become a bump on the ledger of a multi-state gaming corporation. Or it could stay in Illinois, in the purse account, and support the small businesses of hundreds of Illinois horsemen. It is the difference between a reasonably successful Arlington meet – or no meet at all, with perhaps hundreds of Illinois horsemen, and those we employ, added to the unemployment rolls.
We urge Churchill to take the right and necessary action: forget recapture; leave that $4.5 million in the purse account; agree to a contract for the 2020 meet at Arlington that will provide for adequate overnight purse levels; unequivocally commit to host that meet even if it must proceed without spectators; and let Illinoisans go to work and produce a schedule of live racing this summer at Arlington. We hope that Churchill will choose wisely.
It also is past time for Churchill to abandon its pursuit of a contract that would cover racing next year in addition to racing this year. Churchill’s insistence on adding 2021 to the contract has served only to disrupt our effort to reach agreement on the terms for 2020 – a year of racing that will unfold against a backdrop of remarkable uncertainty. ITHA stands ready to approve a contract exclusive to 2020, so long as overnight purse levels are adequate and other basic parameters are satisfied, but we clearly will not agree to commit now to the terms of racing for next year. (For audio of ITHA testimony before the Illinois Racing Board, click here. ITHA remarks begin at the 9:33 mark.)