Amid lingering contract dispute, decision on live racing at Arlington delayed
Still without a contract between Arlington International Racecourse and horsemen in hand, the Illinois Racing Board on Monday delayed a decision on the track's request to hold live racing without spectators this summer.
The six-member state panel that regulates the horse racing industry agreed to take up the matter again on Thursday, June 18, giving representatives of the Arlington Heights-based racetrack and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association more time to come to terms.
It follows marathon negotiating sessions this weekend in which nearly all issues were resolved. But the sticking point remains whether to agree to a one- or two-year pact.
While the Arlington Million and Beverly D. races would be called off for this year, Arlington says the additional year would allow those popular high-stakes races to resume in 2021, when crowds might be able to return to the track.
The Illinois horsemen are holding firm to a one-year deal because of the uncertain economy and what it could mean for purse levels in 2021. Money taken out of the purse account for the Million ($1 million) and Beverly D. ($600,000) -- races that predominantly feature out-of-state and international horses -- would mean less money left for local winners of all other races.
Arlington officials said Monday they've offered $130,000 for overnight purses this year and $150,000 next year. Last year, purses averaged $151,000 per day.
But horsemen's association negotiators responded late Monday that those amounts were never offered or committed to by Arlington.
Both sides have agreed to a 30-day meet beginning in July or August, with the backstretch opening 30 days before the first race.
The contract dispute has been ongoing for nearly a year, but it came to the forefront in recent days after Arlington and parent company Churchill Downs Inc. agreed to run an abbreviated meet this summer without spectators, reversing a previous stance. Arlington brass previously said opening the park without fans wasn't possible because of a high cost structure, but in the wake of COVID-19, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has so far allowed only spectator-less racing to resume.
Harness racing restarted Saturday night at Hawthorne Race Course in Southwest suburban Stickney, hours after its apron served as the outdoor host for a five-hour negotiating session between Arlington and the horsemen's association. Bargaining continued for at least another three hours Sunday over videoconference, phone and email.
Without a labor agreement with horse owners and trainers -- which by state law was to have been in place by the end of last year -- Arlington can't open. The racing board is charged with certifying live race dates.
"Every day that the uncertainty that remains is a hardship to Illinois horsemen and to everybody who depends on the industry in Illinois for livelihood," said Commissioner Tom McCauley, who was at the bargaining session Saturday at Hawthorne. "I urge all of us to keep that in mind as a backdrop to these critically urgent negotiations and the dire need for a conclusion one way or another."
"It won't go beyond June 18, in my mind," McCauley said of a deal by the board's next regularly scheduled meeting. "And I'm sorry that it's gone that far, but it can't possibly go farther than that. There won't be any horses left here."