Pritzker casts doubt on Arlington plan for spectators at track this summer
The president of Arlington International Racecourse said Friday the plan to reopen this summer "is not possible" without spectators in the grandstand, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker cast doubt on whether that can happen.
"We want people to be able to enjoy watching races -- that can be done remotely," Pritzker said at his daily news conference. "You've seen that the major league sports are at least attempting to do that. ... We just want to make sure that folks who work in the backstretch and everybody that's involved in it is kept safe."
The governor didn't rule out spectators, and Arlington's plan to reopen employing social distancing measures is under review by his office. There are also pending questions from the village, county and state health departments about the health status of backstretch workers who would be coming from six different states.
A handful of the nation's racetracks -- including the namesake track of Arlington's corporate parent company, Louisville, Kentucky-based Churchill Downs -- have reopened for spectator-free racing, as some states begin to loosen COVID-19 related restrictions.
While Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville have committed to doing the same, Arlington President Tony Petrillo told members of the Illinois Racing Board that a reopening of Arlington without spectators "is not possible" because of a cost structure twice that of Hawthorne's and nearly four times that of Fairmount. He said tracks that are running without fans, like Churchill, are financially self-sustaining.
The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association -- with whom Arlington is engaged in a prolonged contract dispute -- has asked Arlington to commit to race at least 30 days this season, whether it's with spectators or not. The horse owners and trainers have sought assurances about whether they can plan for a race meet at all this year at Arlington.
In a back-and-forth line of questioning during a Friday morning videoconference meeting, racing board Commissioner Thomas McCauley also sought some guarantees from Arlington and questioned what makes the track different from others.
"It seems to me that there is a lot of indefiniteness obviously with respect to COVID-19 and the impact that it has on the hospitality businesses in the state and elsewhere, and that's really understandable," said McCauley, of River Forest. "But I'm still not clear as to why they could do it in Kentucky but not in Illinois. That's A. And B is why we can't even get a probable opening day for spectator-less racing, if in fact it's going to happen.
"You know better than I people rely on a certain amount of responsiveness. ... Folks deserve whatever level of certainty they can get in these very uncertain times."
Petrillo said the matter is the hands of the governor's office and the health departments.
• Daily Herald staff writer Marni Pyke contributed to this report.