Serving Illinois Horsemen Was the Privilege of a Lifetime | Farewell from ITHA President Mike Campbell

The story of Illinois thoroughbred horse racing has always been for me one of pride and great personal reward. In all my travels, I’ve never encountered a group of people who work harder, are more industrious, have more integrity, or are more competent than Illinois horsemen.

I’m a third-generation horseman and I’ve spent more than 50 years working in thoroughbred racing — as a jockey, trainer and owner. My wife Jan is my companion as we shuttle our stable from track to track, managing our small-business training operation. Both are sons have worked as jockeys and one, now a trainer, is beginning his own stable. Racing is the family business.

Twelve years ago, when Illinois thoroughbred racing was struggling to compete against racing in other states that had already adopted the racino model to bolster purses, I felt a deep obligation to become president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and provide the leadership necessary to revitalize our sport and industry. In the years that ensued, the ITHA overcame daunting challenges. We professionalized the ITHA by hiring competent staff and adding government relations, communications, legal and accounting capabilities. We successfully changed state law to ensure the ITHA could rely on a steady source of revenue for its budget. This helped ensure we had the resources to provide necessary services for our members and backstretch workers, while also making it more difficult for track management to subvert our association funding in an attempt to weaken our ability to advocate effectively.

We convinced state lawmakers to appropriate supplemental dollars — totaling $60 million, over the course of my tenure — for thoroughbred purses. At the track, before the Illinois Racing Board and at the Capitol, we pushed back against efforts on the part of track management to shrink the live racing schedule, shift costs to the backs of Illinois owners and trainers, and otherwise devalue the men and women who, each day, work to move the sport and industry forward. No matter the pressure we encountered, we stood our ground and advocated for our membership.

We succeeded, after years of lobbying, in achieving passage of an Illinois gaming bill that afforded to tracks the tools to return Illinois racing to competitive footing. This new law also requires tracks engaging in casino gaming to ensure a minimum number of live racing opportunities and higher percentages — from gaming revenue — for purses. And even after Arlington Park went up for sale, I continued to advocate. Together with Endeavor Properties, I assembled a team of investors and horse racing professionals to put forward a bid to purchase Arlington — so that the track could indeed realize its highest and best purpose.

Now begins a new chapter for Illinois thoroughbred horse racing. The ITHA has secured a three-year contract with Hawthorne Race Course that, among other benefits for horsemen, will require that the track’s overpayment to purses will be rationed over a period of years. That means the vast majority of purse money earned from supplemental revenue will immediately be used for purses — rather than for satisfying the overpayment. By 2023, Hawthorne intends to launch its racino and this, of course, will mean a substantial boost for purses.

Tim Carey and his team at Hawthorne have repeatedly demonstrated their genuine commitment to thoroughbred horse racing and we wish them only the best as they work to complete construction of Hawthorne’s casino complex. In the coming session of the Illinois General Assembly, the ITHA will continue its legislative pursuits to improve the quality of Illinois thoroughbred racing.

The ITHA is in good hands with Chris Block as its incoming president. I’ve known Chris for all of my working life and I’m confident he will capably guide the ITHA through the most tumultuous time that Illinois racing has ever seen.

Until we meet again on the backstretch, I’m wishing only the best to you, your families and the sport that we all love. I’m grateful for the privilege to serve Illinois horsemen — the finest horsemen I have ever known.