It's official: Racing will resume July 23 at Arlington Park
After a bitter yearlong contract dispute, Arlington International Racecourse and horse owners and trainers have inked a new agreement that would allow live racing to begin at the track a month from now.
Management of the Arlington Heights oval and Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association presented the signed two-year agreement to the Illinois Racing Board Monday morning after a final round of negotiations over the weekend. Monday's meeting marked the fifth such session of the appointed state regulatory panel this month, as board members kept deferring approval of Arlington's request for a shortened racing season amid its squabble with the association.
The new contract and subsequent racing dates approved Monday means live racing -- without spectators -- can now begin by July 23.
In a reversal of a previous stance, Arlington and parent company Churchill Downs Inc. agreed earlier this month to race without fans, after Gov. J.B. Pritzker allowed racing to resume only without spectators in the wake of COVID-19.
Arlington is expected to open its backstretch to horses and workers by July 6. Live racing is scheduled on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays July 23 through Sept. 26.
Arlington President Tony Petrillo thanked board Commissioner Tom McCauley and Executive Director Domenic DiCera, who served as unofficial arbiters at the bargaining table.
"We had our bumps -- more than bumps -- but we are really indebted to these two gentlemen for their perseverance, but most of all their patience," Petrillo said.
David McCaffrey, executive director of the horsemen's group, echoed those sentiments.
"If that was his definition of bumps, I'd like to know what an explosion was," he quipped. "All's well that ends well. I'm thrilled to death that we got to the finish line."
In a joint statement released late Monday afternoon, the two sides said the contract came as a result of "careful compromise and difficult deliberations."
"Both parties are now focused on facilitating a prosperous meet in these difficult times," the statement said.
But even after the board approved Arlington's request for a 30-day live racing schedule, another conflict arose that threatened to derail even a shortened season.
Officials at Hawthorne Race Course in Southwest suburban Stickney asked the board to reassign some of Arlington's forthcoming dark host time -- days in which there isn't live racing but tracks can begin collecting purse money from local off-track-betting parlors.
Hawthorne Assistant General Manager John Walsh argued his track was owed for hosting some 130 thoroughbred horses on its backstretch for some three months at a cost of $239,000 per month. Many of those horses would have been at Arlington were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of racing.
But Arlington attorney Sean Wood said the two tracks have a legally binding agreement governing the 2020 schedule, agreed to last fall, that doesn't contain an act of God provision. And Petrillo argued Arlington has lost money, too, with the suspension of live racing, and has some $450,000 in drainage system repairs before the backstretch can open.
Ultimately -- after a 30-minute recess during the board's online meeting -- commissioners voted 5-1 to allow Arlington to begin accumulating the purse monies, with McCauley casting the lone dissenting vote. The River Forest resident, who was an attorney for Arlington in the 1980s, called Hawthorne's action a "generous and voluntary gesture."
McCauley and racing board Chairman Dan Beiser agreed that Hawthorne's contribution to the Illinois horse racing industry shouldn't go unnoticed going forward.
But talks over an allocation of racing dates for the 2021 season could prove contentious between Arlington and Hawthorne, with Walsh already saying there would be a contested dates hearing before the board this fall.
Arlington's long-term future still remains in doubt, with Churchill so far only committing to keeping the gates open through 2021.