O'Donnell: Cavalry arriving at Arlington? Emergency Racing Board meeting Friday

  • Might there be racing at Arlington Park this season? Perhaps Friday's emergency meeting of the Illinois Racing Board will be telling.

      Might there be racing at Arlington Park this season? Perhaps Friday's emergency meeting of the Illinois Racing Board will be telling. John Starks | Staff Photographer

Updated 6/3/2020 11:03 PM

ARE THOSE SKELETONS rattling at Northwest Highway and Wilke a renewed possibility of some sort of live thoroughbred racing at Arlington Park this summer?

Or is it merely a ruse by AP parent Churchill Downs Inc. to flash "good faith" to the state of Illinois as it continues pursuit of new licenses of privilege for startup casino operations in Waukegan and Chicago?


This much is certain: The Illinois Racing Board has called an emergency teleconference for Friday. Among the only three fresh items on the agenda is "Request submitted by Arlington Park Racecourse, LLC, for approval to amend the 2020 Dates Order to change live race days and post times."

There is credible speculation that a majority of the board will vote that management of the CDI facility either commit to specific days of racing this season or pull the plug on any possibility.

Such commitment would likely include a June opening of the Arlington backstretch and a July start to live racing.

The racing season would end in September. That curtain could happen as early as Saturday, Sept. 5 -- the rescheduled date of the Kentucky Derby -- or much less likely as late as Sept. 27.

Also slated to be discussed are similar dates reordering from Southwest suburban Hawthorne Race Course and downstate Fairmount Park. As previously reported, both tracks have been given an OK from Gov. J.B. Pritzker to resume spectator-free racing.

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Hawthorne will be the first to go. A vanguard of sulkies will open a full card at 7:10 p.m. Saturday with no on-track spectators.

As for Arlington, the once-crisp operation continues to bound along as a ball of confusion.

The track was forced to cancel its May 1 frontstretch opening due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At an IRB meeting May 22, AP facilities veteran Anthony Petrillo -- attempting to speak within the specific dictates of CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen and staff -- said that the plant still hoped to hold live racing in 2020.

But, Petrillo added, "spectator-less" racing at Arlington was not possible because of "cost structure higher than those at other tracks."

Additionally, Arlington remains without a contract with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to race this summer, an impediment that precludes any sort of legal opening.


Multiple sources familiar with the moving dynamic said Wednesday that it is possible Petrillo or other CDI agents will amend those stances to the IRB on Friday to include:

• A willingness to run without spectators until the current state ban is lifted.

• A cancellation of all open (non-Illinois restricted) stakes races, including the Million,

• A deferment or outright waiver of at least $2 million of the approximate $4 million due to CDI/AP via "recapture," an archaic 1994 device that essentially takes away money from daily horsemen's purses and pumps the profits of Illinois race tracks.

Hawthorne President Tim Carey already has announced a deferment of close to $4 million in "recapture" due his track so it can open a scheduled thoroughbred meet in October.

Regarding the Arlington-ITHA contract impasse, by state law, the matter was to have been concluded by Dec. 31. Instead, CDI/AP reportedly has done little true negotiating in the matter.

The IRB failing to assertively intervene as well as expansive animus between Petrillo and ITHA president Mike Campbell made the meetings -- in the words of one regular attendee -- "pointless and painful."

With ITHA executive director Dave McCaffrey and respected board member Chris Block trying to circumvent the Petrillo-Campbell lo-jinks, there remains the possibility a very quick settlement on daily purse structure and a new contract could be reached.

One keenly informed horsemen said:

"Any Arlington meet this summer isn't going to be much. But it's better than nothing. Figure eight races a day, six-horse fields, two or three days a week and none of us planning to be here any time after this year or next.

"The hardest part of all of this would fall on the track's racing department. They've somehow got to get at least 800 to 1,000 horses or so on the backstretch while many trainers are already committed to racing elsewhere."

The ITHA initially proposed overnight daily purses of close to $190,000. It is now believed they would settle for a sum closer to $140,000.

The Million has been run with only two interruptions since the great John Henry won its inaugural in 1981. The exceptions came in 1998-99 when then-track czar Dick Duchossois shuttered his racing palace for economic reasons.

Carstanjen and CDI are left at an intriguing crossroads.

The corporation might have to take a one-time "hit" of roughly $5 million to race at Arlington this year.

But in doing so they would retain a modicum of "good faith" with the administration of Gov. Pritzker and stay on target to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in future years toward "shareholder value" if aspirations regarding casinos in Waukegan and Chicago reach fulfillment.

Or, the folks in Louisville could just leave those skeletons at Arlington Park rattling.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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