Still no clarity for ITHA on status of Arlington Park meet

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: May 22, 2020

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association on May 22 asked for clarity regarding plans by Arlington Park for its 2020 race meet, but for the second Illinois Racing Board meeting in a row, failed to get it.

The ITHA was, however, told by Arlington General Manager Tony Petrillo that “spectator-free horse racing at this juncture is not possible” because the cost structure is prohibitive for Arlington. And though Petrillo said the track didn’t consider “pulling the plug” on this year’s meet, there is no timeline for a meet to begin.

“We need clarity in the industry (in terms of purses and racing dates), and we humbly ask you to provide clarity for our situation,” ITHA President Mike Campbell asked IRB members early in the two-hour meeting, which was held via teleconference. “Thousands of people are at stake here. We need concrete answers on when we can begin racing.”

“The industry needs clarity and it needs it now,” said trainer Chris Block, a member of the ITHA Board of Directors. “As of today, many horsemen are in flux as to whether there will be racing at Arlington. It’s looking more and more like we will have to uproot our business and go to another state to race.”

The IRB at its April meeting granted Arlington a one-month extension on its dark-day simulcast host status to May 22—tracks and off-track betting parlors remained shuttered during the period because of coronavirus (COVID-19) so there was no revenue generated—and considered a recommendation by staff to extend the host status another month through June 18. The dark-day host schedule for each year is agreed upon when live racing dates are awarded the previous September.

ITHA Executive Director David McCaffrey said the organization’s Board of Directors met May 21 to discuss the dark-day host item on the IRB agenda and unanimously voted on the following recommendation to the IRB based on the fact Hawthorne Race Course has worked actively with state, county and city health officials to begin its spectator-free Standardbred meet as soon as it gets the go-head from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office: that Arlington commit to 30 days of racing regardless of whether patrons are permitted; that all open stakes not be run this year; and the Arlington barn and training tracks open 30 days before the start of a meet.

The ITHA told the IRB that, if Arlington can’t meet those conditions, Hawthorne should get all dark host days for the rest of the spring and for the summer.

The IRB voted unanimously to grant the month of dark host days to Arlington. IRB member Thomas McCauley said he voted in favor of the staff recommendation because of the possibility OTBs would not be open during that period, but then suggested the IRB hold a special meeting before the scheduled June 23 meeting to revisit the decision.

Hawthorne Assistant General Manager John Walsh earlier in the meeting said it’s possible Hawthorne-operated OTB parlors could open, albeit on a limited basis, at the end of May.

“We need to ask the question again,” McCauley said. “We need definite answers from Arlington. The entire industry needs more definitive answers from Arlington.”

Petrillo said COVID-19 protocols and procedures submitted to state, county and city health departments were for a meet with on-track patrons. Hawthorne and Fairmount Park, which both worked through the state Department of Agriculture on their reopening plans, intend to race without spectators as soon as possible.

Arlington said it expects to have 470 to 550 horses on the grounds for a meet, about one-third to one-half of which would be Illinois-based horses. Currently, Hawthorne is offering stabling to hundreds of Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds and more than 400 backstretch employees and their families.

Hawthorne earlier in the week agreed to waive its right to recapture—shifting money from the purse account to pay for racetrack operations—for the fall Thoroughbred meet, which will add more than $3 million in purse money. The ITHA asked Arlington to do the same with the $4.5 million in purse revenue it earned from simulcasts from October 2019 through mid-March, but did not receive an answer.

Given the fact no purse revenue has been generated for more than two months, McCaffrey said “all the purse money that was generated (for the summer meet) is gone if they do not give up recapture.” He said another $4.5 million would be generated under normal conditions from now until the end of the Arlington meet in late September.

“What Hawthorne did was a terrific gesture,” McCaffrey said. “It stands to save the fall meet”

(Arlington Park photo courtesy of Coady Photography)