O'Donnell: Arlington Park, horsemen have tentative deal, with July opening targeted

SOME WILL CALL IT thoroughbred racing.

As far away from the grandeur of Million I as Dutch marble racing is from Royal Ascot, Arlington Park will apparently conduct an abbreviated live meet this summer.

Representatives of the Churchill Downs Inc. oval and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association finally reached agreement on a contract Wednesday morning.

"At this hour, we have a tentative agreement," said Mike Campbell, the president of the ITHA.

"The devil could prove to be in the details. CDI attorneys are generating the initial draft as we speak, which will then be reviewed by our attorneys and our contract committee.

"I am hopefully optimistic all will be done in time for tomorrow's meeting of the Illinois Racing Board."

The two sides are expected to seek approval for their patchworked schedule during the regular monthly meeting of the IRB at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Arlington is expected to conduct 30 live programs beginning July 23 to 26 and ending in September.

There will be no stakes races, including the 2020 Million. That will mark the first time since 1999 that the track centerpiece has not been run and only the third time since its 1981 inaugural.

The Million is expected to return for what could be its final running in 2021.

The new contract is for two seasons.

CDI had been insisting on a two-year deal since negotiations began last year. The ITHA was holding firm on one year in large part because of the economic uncertainties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of those uncertainties on 2021 purses.

The start of live racing is expected to be spectator-free. That could change if Gov. J.B. Pritzker and staff move the state of Illinois into an advanced phase of reopening before then.

Purse levels for the truncated meet are expected to average approximately $130,000 per day. That figure is expected to increase to $150,000 next year, roughly equivalent to the median of AP's 2018 meet.

According to one informed member of the local racing community, the Arlington backstretch is expected to open "within a couple of weeks."

Some stables are anticipating some difficulty in securing the services of seasonal backstretch help.

Racing secretary Chris Polzin - who was furloughed in May - is expected to be back on the job no later than Friday.

By state law, a contact between CDI/AP and the ITHA was to be in place by Dec. 31.

Instead, CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen and minions allowed negotiations to limp forward past the start of the pandemic and past the oval's initial scheduled opening of May 1.

Repeated "emergency sessions" in recent weeks failed to resolve the impasse.

With Thursday's IRB meeting considered a "drop dead" deadline by most in the regional racing industry, IRB commissioner Tom McCauley and agency executive director Domenic DiCera conducted triple-overtime emergency teleconferences on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

Wednesday's session began at 8 a.m. and lasted less than 30 minutes. Besides the IRB officials, principal participants included Arlington's Anthony Petrillo, ITHA representatives Dave McCaffrey, Chris Block and Campbell, and attorneys for both sides.

"Nothing is assured in business until it's signed," Campbell said. "But we think a long and grueling process is over."

The ITHA executive committee was also represented on Wednesday's call by Rick Johnson, Steve Holland and plumbing magnate Marty Nixon.

Trainer Larry Rivelli - who has won the last seven conditioning titles at AP - is expected to be among the first stable masters with horses on the backstretch. It is estimated he will have close to 100 horses on the grounds by Opening Day.

On Thursday, interested parties can listen live to the teleconference online by Googling "Illinois Racing Board."

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at

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