Two horse racing tracks at the starting gates, but will Arlington scratch?
It'll be post time for live horse racing without spectators at two of Illinois' three racetracks as soon as next week, but some fear the third -- Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights -- may be a scratch this summer.
In a series of announcements Wednesday, organizations representing owners and trainers said Hawthorne Race Course in Southwest suburban Stickney is set to open for harness racing Saturday, and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville will open for thoroughbreds sometime next week.
But the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association -- the group locked in a bitter contract dispute with Arlington and corporate parent Churchill Downs Inc. -- assailed track management on Wednesday for its recent announcement that it would reopen only if spectators were allowed by the state.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday did not confirm exact reopening dates for the tracks but said live races would not begin as early as Monday -- the date cited by the ITHA and Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents workers at Fairmount. Pritzker did reiterate previous statements that horse races would have to be run without spectators in the stands, at least to begin with.
Arlington's reopening plan, now under review by Pritzker's office, proposes an abbreviated race meet with spectators adhering to social distancing measures. Arlington President Tony Petrillo told the Illinois Racing Board last Friday that a reopening without fans "is not possible" because of a cost structure twice of Hawthorne's and nearly four times that of Fairmount.
That's drawn the ire of the horsemen association, which has lobbied for racing without spectators.
"Rather than race without spectators, and miss out on the prospect of selling cocktails at a steep markup to crowds at Arlington Million Day, Arlington instead is poised to forgo racing altogether," Mike Campbell, the group's president, said in a lengthy statement released Wednesday. "Everybody in Illinois is sacrificing in this difficult time. Everybody, that is, except Arlington -- which would just as soon take its ball and go home than do its part to help Illinois workers and taxpayers by continuing live racing while taking reasonable steps to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19.
"Arlington Park exists to race horses -- for the benefit of Illinois jobs, economic opportunity and taxpayers -- not to sell $16 sangrias."
In a statement released Wednesday evening, Petrillo said while spectatorless racing wouldn't be feasible under the current economic conditions, the bigger hurdle to clear has been the inability to come to terms on a contract with the horsemen. Petrillo said the track wants their consent to simulcast races into other wagering jurisdictions, while he called their demands for guaranteed purse levels "unreasonable."
"Racing without spectators has many systemic issues," he said. "We shouldn't be judged by perception alone."
Earlier Wednesday, Arlington announced that two of its highest attendance days, Fourth of July fireworks and Father's Day, were canceled and refunds would be issued to those who have already purchased tickets.
"In support of, and with respect to the governor's reopening plan for businesses that may encourage mass gatherings, and in the interest of public safety, Arlington International Racecourse has made the decision to suspend the opening of its race meet, which will extend beyond our next two premium events," according to the statement on Arlington's website and social media accounts.
Arlington officials also said last week they're still waiting for the OK from the village, county and state health departments to reopen its backstretch to workers currently at Hawthorne and in other states.