Arlington off to the races next month, reaches deal with trainers’ group

The new contract, which came after long and bitter negotiations, still won’t do much to cool simmering tension between the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Arlington’s corporate owner, Churchill Downs Inc.

SHARE Arlington off to the races next month, reaches deal with trainers’ group
Megans Bluff, with Mark Guidry aboard, runs to victory in the $125,000 Arlington Oaks on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2000, at Arlington International Racecourse

Megans Bluff, with Mark Guidry aboard, runs to victory in the $125,000 Arlington Oaks on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2000, at Arlington International Racecourse

AP

And they’re off at Arlington — weeks behind everyone else, but off nonetheless.

Executives at Arlington International Racecourse and its horse owners and trainers reined in a deal Monday to return to the racetrack in July, ending months of bitter contract talks that dragged through the entirety of Illinois’ coronavirus shutdown, even as the state’s other two tracks resumed racing without spectators in attendance.

A deal between Arlington and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association had seemed imminent last week, only for the sides to fall short of finalizing the pact in time for either of a pair of special Illinois Racing Board meetings held to approve revised racing dates for a season thrown upside down by the pandemic.

The sides were tripped up in the final stretch over the length of the deal and projected purse allocations, the money paid out to winning horse owners. Among the latest contract snags was the language of a “force majeure” clause, which would free both sides from the deal in case of an extraordinary event — say, a global pandemic.

“We had our bumps — more than bumps,” Arlington president Tony Petrillo said of the contentious negotiations.

“If that was his definition of ‘bumps,’ I’d like to know what his definition of ‘explosion’ is,” ITHA executive director David McCaffrey said after the Racing Board signed off on the adjusted season.

Terms of the two-year contract were not immediately available. Owners and trainers are expected back on the Arlington backstretch July 6, with races resuming July 23 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 26.

Arlington International Racecourse president Tony Petrillo pictured at a September 2019 Illinois Racing Board meeting.

Arlington International Racecourse president Tony Petrillo pictured at a September 2019 Illinois Racing Board meeting.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Arlington’s season was originally slated to begin May 1, but they’d already been at loggerheads with the trainers’ association for months — well before the pandemic gripped the state and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at home order grounded the beleaguered horse racing industry and all other gambling operations in mid-March.

So when Pritzker’s administration sounded the bugle for racing to resume with safety precautions in place, the ponies were off by June 6 at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and three days later at downstate Fairmount Park — but the backstretch in northwest suburban Arlington Heights remained dormant.

The new contract agreement still won’t do much to cool simmering tension between the horsemen’s association and Arlington’s corporate owner, Churchill Downs Inc. Owners and trainers are still livid the track did not apply for a casino license last year, as allowed under the massive gambling expansion signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

That’s despite the fact Arlington, along with the rest of the racing industry, for decades had pushed Springfield lawmakers for just that legislation, with slot machines and table games thought to be a lifeline for shrinking racing purses.

Hawthorne and Fairmount applied to become “racinos,” but Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen complained the taxes were too high, refused to commit to racing at Arlington beyond 2021 and said they’d consider “moving the racing license to another community in the Chicagoland area or elsewhere in the state.”

Enraged by the corporate threat, Racing Board members briefly played hardball in September by suggesting they’d withhold 2020 racing dates from Arlington if Churchill Downs wouldn’t invest in a casino, but the track was ultimately granted the dates.

The horsemen’s association has opined Churchill Downs is more interested in protecting its investment in nearby Des Plaines — Rivers Casino — than it is in injecting a massive cash flow into the racing industry with slots at Arlington.

The track has applied for an Illinois Gaming Board license to open a sportsbook, though, which the trainers have called on Pritzker’s administration to keep out of Churchill Downs reach unless they commit to an Arlington racino.

Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Mike Campbell also told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year that two groups interested in buying Arlington had approached him, asking if horse owners and trainers would support them in potential bids.

Churchill Downs has insisted the track’s not up for sale and they’re not seeking bids.

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