O'Donnell: Arlington mouses behind as Pritzker OKs resumption of racing
LIVE HORSE RACING in Illinois is being given the green light to resume next week.
But not a creature will be stirring at Arlington Park.
Not even an out-of-state corporate louse.
Officials from Gov. J.B. Pritzker's Department of Agriculture have notified managements at both Southwest suburban Hawthorne Race Course and downstate Fairmount Park that spectator-free racing can begin as soon as Tuesday.
Pritzker massaged a question on the resumption of racing at his Wednesday afternoon press briefing, saying there will be no racing "June 1" (Monday).
It is believed he did that because specific logistics for live racing from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to his staff were awaiting final review.
For Hawthorne, it will mean the resumption of its spring-summer harness meet, an extended session that was suspended in the wake of official acknowledgment of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
At Fairmount, near East St. Louis, horsemen are expected to saddle their thoroughbreds in the afternoon for the first time since March 17.
Both tracks have kept their backstretches open throughout the disruption.
But at Arlington, it's nothing but whackable weeds and the echoes of hollow words as the legacied oval continues its fade deeper into pronounced uncertainty.
Had management been positioned to open the AP backstretch on April 10 -- as initially OK'd by parent Churchill Downs Inc. -- the track would be set to begin its 2020 schedule sometime in June.
Instead, the backside is locked and empty, many regular seasonal trainers are scattered to operating tracks elsewhere, and all racing department personnel remain furloughed.
Arlington also has no contract with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to run this summer.
At the May meeting of the Illinois Racing Board last Friday, AP facilities veteran Anthony Petrillo puppeted that the track's business model would not allow "spectator-free" racing.
That stance was a 180 from the one voiced by Jim Watkins, president of the Fairmount horsemen's association:
"Of course we wish there were fans on-track and open OTBs, but we're just happy to be taking the first steps back to normalcy and giving all of the independent small-business men who make up a racing community a chance to earn some income again.
"We could not be doing any of this without the overwhelming support and cooperation of Fairmount ownership. We've also worked together with Tim Carey and Hawthorne to get this done.
"We are all working as well as possible together to make the best of a very tough situation."
Added Jim Miller, the director of racing at Hawthorne: "We're thrilled. We're waiting on final protocols and guidelines through the Department of Ag and hopefully will run qualifiers on Monday and Wednesday with our first live card Saturday night, June 6."
Regarding Arlington, knowing the meticulousness of planning by CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen and his circle of trust in Louisville, it's a very safe bet that the corporation has a much larger strategy in mind for its gaming and possibly racing vistas in Illinois.
A grand trifecta would likely include continuation of CDI's 62 percent ownership of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, the award of the license for a new casino in Waukegan and some sort of significant profit participation in Chicago's proposed temple of chance.
All of which would leave Arlington Park a mere whackable weed after the storm.
Carstanjen could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
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• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com.