The Illinois Racing Board has approved a 2001 schedule that will facilitate the merger between Arlington International Racecourse and Churchill Downs but shuffles the deck for Sportsman's Park and Hawthorne Race Course, forcing rescheduling of their signature races.
Several Board members at Tuesday's long and contentious meeting urged Sportsman's and Hawthorne to hurry up and merge their operations. Talks toward such a merger of the next-door neighbors--or toward a purchase of Hawthorne by Arlington -- have stalled.
"There are too many tracks in Illinois," said commissioner Leon Shlofrock. "I urge the industry to resolve that problem." Added commissioner Lorna Propes, "It's really quite frustrating that you guys can't make this happen." And IRB Chairman Ralph Gonzalez told the track operators, "We've got enough competition outside the state. We've got enough competition from other forms of entertainment that we don't need to be picking on one another and fighting amongst ourselves."
Arlington's 2001 schedule was moved back a month from this year's to start on June 11 and run through Oct. 30. That will permit Arlington to coordinate better with Churchill Downs' operations and prepare to apply for a future running of the Breeders' Cup championship races. Arlington gives up its Mothers' Day opener- traditionally its biggest attendance draw of the season.
Hawthorne's meet was bifurcated, with a first session from May 1 through June 10 and a second from Oct. 31 through Dec. 31. While that gives Hawthorne all three Triple Crown events, it forces rescheduling of the Hawthorne Gold Cup, which in the past few years has become a significant Breeders' Cup prep race in early October.
Sportsman's--which promised a multimillion-dollar revamp of its currently fan-unfriendly clubhouse and grandstand--will run from March 1 through April 30, but will be the "host track" for Illinois daytime simulcasting from Jan. 2 through February, earning commissions on simulcast wagering for that time period. The 2001 schedule, however, will force Sportsman's to reschedule the Illinois Derby, which in recent years has been run one week after the Kentucky Derby and has attracted some high-quality 3-year-olds.
Hawthorne also applied unsuccessfully for a harness meet. The board awarded all Illinois Standardbred racing to Balmoral and Maywood Park, which have been highly successful in the past few years.
The vote on the Thoroughbred schedule was unanimous. On the Standardbred schedule, eight commissioners voted yes, with commissioner John Simon dissenting, saying Hawthorne is entitled to a chance to show what it can do with harness dates.
Hawthorne officials were extremely disappointed in the board's order. "We have our statutory mandated time period (10 days) to respond," said Thomas Carey III. "It's a radical change to the way we do business." Hawthorne again hinted it might pursue legal action over the denial of harness dates.
Arlington and Churchill Downs executives were pleased with the schedule. "With Arlington's 2001 dates running through late October, Arlington has the opportunity to submit a strong bid for a Breeders' Cup for Illinois," said Scott Mordell, Arlington's CEO. Churchill Downs COO John Long said the "combined efforts of Churchill Downs and Arlington will produce continued progress for racing in both Illinois and the Midwest overall."
Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville was awarded the 161 Thoroughbred dates it requested, to be determined by the track. For the second straight year, Fairmount will run no harness dates.
The 2001 Chicago-area Thoroughbred racing schedule:
Jan. 2-Feb. 28: Dark, no live racing.
March 1-April 30: National Jockey Club at Sportsman's Park
May 1-June 10: Hawthorne Race Course
June 11-Oct. 30: Arlington International Racecourse
Oct. 31-Dec. 31: Hawthorne Racecourse.