'This industry will never be the same without Arlington Park': Illinois horsemen plead for help
With little more than a month to go until the expected final race at Arlington Park, Illinois horsemen Tuesday pleaded with a state regulatory panel to save the historic racetrack and their fading industry.
"We find ourselves at probably the most perilous time in the history of Illinois racing," David McCaffrey, executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said during a meeting of the Illinois Racing Board.
McCaffrey was joined by two board members of the association, which represents nearly 2,500 horse owners and trainers at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights and Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero, in detailing the challenges they're facing ahead of the last Arlington race Sept. 25.
Chris Block said a likely reduced 2022 thoroughbred racing schedule at Hawthorne, which would become the lone Chicago-area track, could cause the relocation or retirement -- voluntary or not -- of owners and trainers. Block, a longtime horse owner, trainer and breeder from Elk Grove Village, added that the state's breeding industry is "on life support," with 156 foals produced this year, down from more than 1,000 a decade ago.
"This industry will never be the same without Arlington Park," Block said. "I just pray that we can find a solution past 2022 to help keep it alive."
Block said horsemen already are faced with difficulties in coming up with a 2022 racing schedule.
After Arlington owner Churchill Downs Inc. declined to apply for 2022 race dates ahead of a July 30 deadline, representatives of both thoroughbred and Standardbred horses have been left to negotiate over a truncated calendar at Hawthorne.
In 2021, thoroughbreds have been scheduled to race 117 days, with Arlington hosting the horses in the summer and Hawthorne in the spring and fall. But that number could go down to 75 to 80 days in 2022, Block said.
Neither representatives of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association nor those of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association "will come out of this happy with a schedule," Block said, but both groups understand the situation they are faced with. Supporters of the industry have lobbied in recent years for a new harness track in the South suburbs.
The racing board will hold its annual dates hearing and vote on a final 2022 schedule on Sept. 23.
Mike Campbell, president of the thoroughbred horsemen's group and a frequent critic of Churchill, implored the racing board to use its authority to create transparency in the bidding process for the Arlington Park land.
Campbell said based on information he's received, a group led by former Arlington President Roy Arnold that wants to preserve horse racing turned in perhaps the highest bid but will be rejected by Churchill.
"That is inconceivable to me because in any business situation I've been involved in, it's the highest bid that counts. But not in this one," Campbell said. "Because it is the worst kept secret in Illinois, and we all know it. And that is that Churchill Downs and Rivers Casino is attempting to eliminate horse racing at Arlington Park because they're afraid that it will turn into a gaming location."
Churchill acquired a majority stake in Rivers, just down the road from Arlington in Des Plaines, in March 2019. Only months later, a massive state gambling expansion bill passed, but the Louisville-based corporation declined to apply for long-sought slots and table games at Arlington that could have boosted horse racing purses.
"The intent of the gaming bill was to provide gaming at the racetracks so that we could stimulate purses and maintain these jobs. And now we find ourselves minus one racetrack without the ability to fit all these dates and provide for two breeds at one track without a two-track solution," Campbell said. "There's no reason that bad actors should be rewarded in this state. I know that I'll fall way short of the mark, but I'm going to fight till the bitter end here to try and save these jobs and do what I can."
No representatives of Churchill or Arlington spoke at the meeting, held virtually.
While some commissioners on the 10-member appointed panel acknowledged the industry's challenges, only Commissioner Alan Henry addressed the situation directly, as he has in previous commentaries at monthly board meetings.
Henry, a Deerfield resident and Arlington box holder since the track reopened in 1989, said he spent the last month walking the property talking to trainers, backstretch workers, horse owners, track employees and fans "to more clearly gauge the human cost of the company's actions."
"What I heard from one end of the grounds to the other had all the markings of a relationship gone bad," Henry said. "One partner, feeling used and callously discarded. The other, excited by the prospect that new conquests lay just over the bright horizon.
"It does seem to me that Churchill Downs seems hellbent on walking away from Arlington Park with no friends and a lot of enemies."