It’s looking more likely that Arlington International Racecourse and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) will not have a contract in place for the upcoming 2020 meet by the time the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) convenes next week.
The Illinois expanded gaming law passed last year required the state’s tracks to have signed agreements with their respective horsemen’s group by the end of the year. The ITHA did secure an agreement with the state’s other thoroughbred track, Hawthorne Race Course, before the deadline.
ITHA President Mike Campbell told Casino.org that the two sides met on Tuesday, but the sides still remain far apart, by more than $60,000 per day in average purse money.
The IRB will meet in Chicago on Tuesday. On the agenda is the status of the contract negotiations.
We’ve both been required by the commission to give submissions on the status of the contract talks and solutions for them,” Campbell said. “Not so much the issues involved. As a matter of fact, they’re not interested in the issues. What they’re interested in is a solution to the issues.”
The horsemen have stood firm in requesting an average daily purse of $200,000. Campbell said that would help improve racing at the suburban Chicago track by offering purses that are comparable with tracks in Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota.
Arlington is owned by Churchill Downs Inc. A call to a Churchill Downs spokesperson for comment was not returned.
Without a contract in place, the 68-day meet scheduled to start on May 1 is in jeopardy.
Stakes Funding Also Hurts Purses
Not only is purse size itself an issue, but it’s also how the purse money is doled out that has raised concerns.
“To have 30 percent of your budget, of your purse count, go towards stakes is outrageous, especially when you have reduced handle, reduced field sizes, reduced quality of racing, and a precipitous decline in the racing model,” Campbell said.
He said the state of Illinois racing is such that the locals cannot compete with the top national connections that come in for Arlington’s top stakes races,
The horsemen have a few proposals for Churchill to boost purses at Arlington. Campbell said one solution would be that the company put back the “recapture” funds it siphons from the purse money . A 25-year-old state law allows tracks to recapture, or reclaim, money from the purses in order to shore up track revenues lost to simulcasting.
Churchill Downs also could put up the purses for the Arlington stakes, Campbell said. He noted the Stronach Group does that for the Pegasus World Cup races at its Gulfstream Park in Florida.
What Does the Future Hold?
And, of course, there’s gaming that could fund purses. Churchill Downs’ decision, though, not to pursue a casino at the track after lobbying for it along with the horsemen has created a rift between the parties. That threatens the future of a track with a history dating back nearly 100 years.
Campbell said owners and trainers agreed to take cuts in purses, dropping from an average of about $180,000 a couple years ago, because they were told casino gaming at the track would restore funding for purses.
However, after the expanded gaming law took effect last summer, Churchill Downs announced it would forego casino racing because of the tax structure. After the IRB considered revoking Arlington’s dates, Churchill Downs told board members in September it was weighing its options for the future.
Campbell and others believe the casino decision has more to do with Churchill Downs buying a majority stake in Rivers Des Plaines, which is located about 10 miles away.
The horsemen have called on Churchill Downs to sell the track if the company is not interested in pursuing gaming. Campbell said he’s been approached by a couple of groups that may be interested in buying the track.