Jim O'Donnell: Carstanjen, Churchill Inc., stumble trying to defend Petrillo

  • Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo.

    Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo. Courtesy of the Sun-Times/2019

Updated 9/1/2021 7:49 PM

THE TRANSITING TOWN BULLY of Illinois thoroughbred racing continues to trip all over itself.

Churchill Downs Inc. -- the out-of-state carnivore that knows no shame -- has finally released a statement about the behavior of regional executive Anthony Petrillo in the Arlington Park press box on Saturday, Aug. 14.


That was the afternoon intended to honor the life and legacy of Dick Duchossois, the 99-year-old industrialist responsible for much of the fun and spirit of the local oval since 1983.

Instead, the day ended in disgrace when Petrillo -- CDI's operational point man at Arlington -- blasted into the press box less than two hours after the conclusion of the $600,000 "Mr. D. Stakes" and tossed all eight working media members out on their laptops for some perceived infraction.

AFTER REPEATED REQUESTS by The Daily Herald, Tonya Abeln, a media relations spokesperson on the staff of CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen, issued the following:

"Following the running of the Mr. D. at Arlington Park, we are aware that there was behavior in the press box that was in direct violation of our Media Guidelines. The Media Guidelines ensure safe and responsible operations and help maintain decorum for all journalists to complete their job in a healthy, safe and respectful environment.

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"Because this behavior compromised the safety of track personnel, a security team was dispatched to de-escalate the interaction. Part of the planned response was to reduce the number of people in the immediate area.

"During this fluid situation, in the early moments, the goal to have all credentialed media relocated to an alternative location at the track to finish their work was clearly miscommunicated. We regret this incident impacted several journalists' work, even as we appreciate that the security team did what they felt was in the best interest of safety for those in the room.

"We share with Mr. Petrillo a deep admiration and appreciation for the work of journalists who chronicle, document and transfer the excitement of horse racing through their talents. This isolated incident is not a reflection of the values we place on that work and the relationships we share with those professionals."

AMONG "THOSE PROFESSIONALS" polled by The Daily Herald in the wake of the Carstanjen-sanctioned "twistie," reactions ranged from midlevel tsk-tsking to unbridled howling.


Marcus Hersh of The Daily Racing Form said that the central section of Abeln's attempt at mitigation was "all made up."

Photographer Jamie Newell declined comment after previously using a stronger horse stall pejorative.

Said Ryan Thompson, another visiting photographer who was booted by Petrillo and his crack security aides: "The only misbehaving that I know of was Tony P. and his actions kicking us out, and his treatment of Jamie. The line about relocating us and miscommunication is so very disingenuous. I very clearly and nicely asked for another space to work in and was flat out told 'no.'

"We just had to get off the property."

UNDER SEPARATE COVER, both Petrillo and Abeln sent letters to longtime racing writer Tom Law -- the president of The National Turf Writers and Broadcasters -- in yet another extended try to cover hind quarters on the trashed Louisville-Arlington imaging line.

Both used chunks of Abeln's statement to The Daily Herald. Petrillo's concluded with an act of dancin' contrition: "I am guilt-ridden that this incident impacted several journalists' work, even as I appreciate that our security team did what we felt was in the best interests of safety for those in the room."

AT THIS POINT, Carstanjen looks foolish and notably "nonexecutive." That should be of significant concern to CDI shareholders and the Illinois Gaming Board. Duchossois's grand farewell was ruined. And many veteran industry observers find it amazing Petrillo still has a job.

Said Neil Milbert -- the Chicago Tribune icon who is the only journalist to have covered all 39 runnings of The Arlington Million: "Can you imagine if someone from The New York Times had been in that press box and a nutty executive blowup like this happens? It's immediately a national story."

UNTIL RECENT TIMES, the most "unpredictable" chief operational overseer in the modern annals of AP was an unfortunate choice named John Mooney.

Gulf & Western brought him in during its final furlong as corporate owner in the winter of 1981-82.

Within months, he was telling the great Phil Georgeff to stop his call at the eighth pole so horses could silently glide to the wire "in the Eastern style," whatever that meant.

He later strongly urged Georgeff to ditch his trademark "Here they come, spinning out of the turn!" because Mooney felt it "distracted bettors."

Finally, in August 1982, in an act of supreme lunacy, Mooney fired Georgeff eight days before Million II.

One year later, Duchossois and partners bought Arlington. Their first action was to allow Mooney to silently glide to the ashcan. Their second was to bring back Georgeff.

For years afterward, Georgeff and mates would hoist a nighttime brew and loudly guffaw at memories of "The Crazy Mr. Mooney."

Ol' Moons now apparently has a partner in a very special exacta box.

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

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