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Stalled contract talks threaten racing, ratchet up tension between Arlington Racecourse and horse owners, trainers

Arlington drew the wrath of the owners and trainers by opting against adding long-sought casino games, but an impasse over purse levels could threaten racing this year.

A worker climbs a ladder at Arlington International Racecourse ahead of its 2000 reopening following a massive renovation.
The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is deadlocked with Churchill Downs Inc. over purses — the amount of money the track pays out to top finishers  — sending them into the new year without a deal.
Associated Press

Horse owners and trainers already enraged by the corporate owner of Arlington International Racecourse now say the track’s 2020 schedule is in jeopardy as the sides have hit a stalemate in contract negotiations.

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is deadlocked with Churchill Downs Inc. over purses — the amount of money the track pays out to top finishers — sending them into the new year without a deal and “threatening the future of live racing at Arlington,” according to a Thursday statement from the association.

That’s despite a new provision in the massive Illinois gambling expansion law signed over the summer requiring that a contract between each racetrack and its horsemen must be signed “before the beginning of each calendar year.”

Arlington’s season is scheduled to begin May 1, the first of 68 live race dates the track was awarded by the Illinois Racing Board in September over the objections of horsemen and some board members who were furious with Churchill Downs’ controversial refusal to apply for a newly authorized casino license.

Michael Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, speaks after a September 2019 Racing Board meeting.
Michael Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, speaks after a September 2019 Racing Board meeting.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

“It’s past time for Churchill to act in good faith and genuinely promote the best interests of our sport and industry and our state’s taxpayers,” the horsemen’s association said. “Churchill can start by approving a 2020 contract that will ensure adequate and competitive overnight purses at Arlington.”

Representatives for Churchill Downs declined to comment.

The Louisville-based corporate gambling giant, which bought Arlington in 2000, blamed high state taxes for its decision not to install slot machines and casino table games as allowed under the gaming expansion. The owners and trainers viewed that as a stab in the back after decades of lobbying in Springfield to allow tracks to become “racinos” as a financial lifeline for the struggling industry.

It prompted a stinging rebuke from Racing Board commissioner Thomas McCauley, who in September called on the company to decide if “it’s only a gaming software company and no longer a horse racing enterprise,” before begrudgingly voting to approve Arlington’s race dates.

The horsemen’s association accused Churchill Downs of stifling potential competition against Rivers Casino, the lucrative gambling emporium they own 12 miles up the road in Des Plaines. The company is also vying for a new casino license earmarked for Waukegan.

Churchill Downs has refused to commit to live horse racing at Arlington beyond 2021 and suggested they could move their racing license, a threat flatly rejected by Racing Board commissioners.

Churchill Downs has said it will apply to open a sportsbook at Arlington, which the owners and trainers have urged the Illinois Gaming Board to reject because they say the company “has failed the most basic test of honesty and integrity.”

The horsemen are seeking an average of $200,000 in daily purse money, but they say Churchill Downs won’t budge from $130,000. Purses average $174,000 per day in Minnesota and $180,000 in Indiana, according to the association.

Contract stalemates have dragged to the brink of past Arlington racing seasons, most recently in 2016 when a deal was struck with just a few days remaining for the starting gates to open. But that was before the annual end-of-year deadline for a deal was written into state gambling law.

Some Arlington horsemen memorably protested reduced purses in 1990 by threatening to go fishing instead of showing up for a busy summer race day at the track. Most trainers ended up racing.