The ITHA understands that Illinois thoroughbred owners and trainers are grappling with the uncertainty regarding the future of Illinois live racing. This update is intended to present what we know based on our assessment of the situation in Illinois, our negotiations with Arlington Park and parent company Churchill Downs, and our recent appearance before the Illinois Racing Board.
We encourage Illinois owners and trainers to plan accordingly.
The Pandemic and Illinois
- The state’s stay-at-home order has been extended through the end of May.
- The reach of Covid-19 has continued to grow in Illinois, touching nearly every county of the state, but so too has the state’s testing capacity. With more testing comes the identification of more cases.
- The state has surpassed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s benchmark of 10,000 tests on average each day and now is focused on building a network of personnel and technology to contact individuals potentially exposed to a positive case in an effort to halt the spread of the virus.
- Gov. Pritzker has said he is encouraged by the state’s case trend, and that the stay-at-home order has worked to help mitigate the spread of the virus, but it remains unclear when the state’s economy will restart in earnest.
Racing Situation in Illinois
- Daniel Beiser, a former state representative from Alton, is the new chair of the Illinois Racing Board. The IRB has just six members; five seats remain vacant.
- Very little was resolved at April’s IRB meeting, the first to be held in three months.
- Hawthorne Race Course asked the IRB to form a committee to discuss the reallocation of host day revenue in light of the uneven distribution of that revenue that has occurred amid the pandemic. If and when this committee is created, the ITHA will advocate for the voice of Illinois thoroughbred owners and trainers.
- The most fundamental problem in Illinois racing is that there is insufficient purse money. The horsemen’s purse account currently holds $4.3 million. We project the account will earn another $200,000 during May, raising the balance to approximately $4.5 million by early June. But if Churchill insists on taking $4.5 million from the purse account for its shareholders (its “recapture”), that would effectively wipe out the entire balance of the purse account – every nickel that our purse account has earned since Arlington’s last meet concluded – and leave nothing at the start of the meet for the purses of Illinois owners and trainers.
- Arlington has agreed to reduce its open stakes from $3.3 million to $1.7 million. We recognize that this is a concession on Arlington’s part, but, given the continued stress on the purse account, it is far from adequate. Every dollar diverted to stakes races that by and large support horsemen not committed to Illinois is a dollar less to support overnight purses for those owners and trainers who are in fact committed to racing – and investing – in this state.
- If Churchill insists on diverting $1.7 million from the horsemen’s purse account for open stakes, while also diverting $4.5 million via recapture, we anticipate that overnight purses would total an abysmally low $80,000 on average each day during what is expected to be only a 35-day meet. Obviously, that is untenable for our sport and industry.
- Arlington also has stopped short of committing to a meet of spectator-free racing, even as Hawthorne and Fairmount Park Racetrack actively pursue that option as a means to continue live racing opportunities while mitigating the spread of Covid-19. Arlington President Tony Petrillo, during the recent IRB meeting, pointedly refused to say under questioning from the IRB whether Arlington would commit to hosting a meet free of spectators.
The Arlington Park Contract
The greatest impediment to an agreement is Arlington’s insistence on a two-year contract, with literally no meaningful terms specified for 2021. The ITHA has in the past agreed to two-year contracts with Arlington. But the circumstances presented by the pandemic are extraordinary; the entire calculus has changed. We cannot begin to speculate on how the racing landscape may appear next year and would be derelict in our responsibility to Illinois owners and trainers to agree to such a contract – particularly one in which we would effectively forfeit our voice over matters of live racing during the second year.
Additionally, there are several items in Arlington’s most recent proposal that could negatively affect horsemen. For example:
- There is no guarantee that a meet will actually be held if Arlington is granted the opportunity to race without spectators.
- There is no opening day established for the backstretch.
- Though Arlington verbally conceded to reduce open stakes to $1.7 million, the track has refused to put that figure in writing. Without a guarantee – one that is clear and unambiguous and in writing – Arlington could opt to reduce overnight purse levels even further.
- The number of race days is not addressed.
- An especially egregious provision of Arlington’s proposal seeks to preclude the ITHA from supporting Hawthorne’s dates application for next year in the event that Arlington and Hawthorne are in conflict. Clearly, we will not agree to preemptively mute our own voice over basic matters of live racing.
We have repeatedly urged Churchill to forgo recapture this year. In the best interest of our sport and industry, Churchill should leave that $4.5 million in the purse account; agree to a contract for the 2020 meet at Arlington that will provide for reasonable stakes levels and adequate overnight purse levels; unequivocally commit to host the 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.
Churchill does not need an Arlington contract with the ITHA to publicly declare that it will abandon recapture. Indeed, an announcement by Churchill that it will forgo recapture would be a demonstration of a good faith effort to support our sport and industry and all the small businesses and workers whose livelihood depends on live racing. It also would set the stage for an agreement on the terms of a contract for the Arlington 2020 meet. If ever there were a time for Churchill to act responsibly and show a commitment to live racing, it is now.
We recognize this predicament for racing in Illinois, as in all racing jurisdictions, is remarkably challenging. We have presented here all that we know. We will continue to represent you to the best of our ability during this calamity that we all are facing together.