The Illinois Racing Board Sept. 29 voted to consolidate all 2016 Chicago-area racing at Arlington International Racecourse and Hawthorne Race Course, averting potential draconian cuts at both those tracks.
The decision shuts out Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, the harness tracks being operated under bankruptcy protection by the Johnston family, reallocating all harness dates to Hawthorne.
The consolidation plan was sponsored jointly by the two Thoroughbred tracks in a rare show of cooperation. It is designed to see the Illinois racing industry through yet another lean financial year but depends on approval by the state legislature of a gaming expansion bill to provide a way for longer-term prosperity.
Hawthorne will kick off the 2016 Thoroughbred season with programs on Jan. 1-2, following with live racing March 7 through April 30. Arlington will race May 1 through Sept. 29, with action returning to Hawthorne from Sept. 30 through New Year's Eve.
Hawthorne, which conducted extensive harness programs as recently as 2008, will run Standardbreds Jan. 6 through Feb. 6 and again from May 1 to Aug. 31.
Hawthorne president Tim Carey said the track has sufficient stalls and dormitory space to accommodate both breeds during overlap periods. He said he will work with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to make provisions for exercising Thoroughbreds stabled at Hawthorne during the winter harness racing.
Horsemen's groups did not formally support either the Hawthorne-Arlington plan or the Balmoral-Maywood application, which would have spread out harness racing over 12 months but only two days per week.
"We cannot go through another year like this year," said ITHA president Mike Campbell, referring to purse cuts, reductions in racing opportunities and elimination of stakes. "We want to be part of the solution and we will do what we can to make that happen."
The key to the agreement is that Arlington and Hawthorne now can split between all live racing revenue and dark-day simulcast income. Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo said that boost in income will permit restoration of three graded stakes put on hiatus during 2015.
It also will, he said, allow Arlington to run 74 dates, as opposed to 34 without the plan in place; to offer about $176,000 daily in purses, as opposed to $80,000; and attract an estimated 1,800 horses, as opposed to 800.
Carey and Arlington chairman Richard Duchossois have a long history of competing, sometimes acrimoniously, for dates and dark-day revenue. Their agreement to work together this year was no less remarkable for having been born of necessity.
"You can't exist in any business if you can't earn enough money to pay the bills," Duchossois said. "We believe by working together, we can revitalize this industry."
"It was tough to come together in the past because we always thought they had the prime dates," Carey added. "Now we can show what we can do with prime dates."
Carey and Petrillo said the tracks plan extensive joint marketing while Arlington is running day Thoroughbred programs and Hawthorne is running harness at night.
Fairmount Park in Collinsville, Ill., near St. Louis, was granted 42 programs, from May 3 through Sept. 5. By agreement with its horsemen's association, the track will be allowed to conduct as few as seven races per card.
The 11-0 vote in favor of the consolidated schedule apparently puts an end to the historic role of the Johnston family in Illinois racing. The family was an integral part of the earliest development of Standardbred racing in its colorful earliest days. For a time, they partnered with George Steinbrenner in ownership of the Chicago-area harness tracks.
Johnston, however, was ensnared in a shakedown scheme engineered by now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Johnston was not charged criminally but a civil suit filed by casino boat operators resulted in a $77 million judgment against him and the harness tracks. That judgment is under appeal, but it forced the bankruptcy filing and the tracks now are seeking a buyer.
Lawyers for Balmoral and Maywood said it's unlikely any buyer will be found for tracks without racing dates and predicted the IRB decision will provoke a Chapter 7 liquidation.
Commissioner Kathy Bryne said the decision to consolidate was "a difficult one" taken "in the interest of racing, in the interest of keeping the sport alive" in Illinois.
Illinois racing has been in a downward spiral for more than a decade, fueled by competition from riverboat casinos and hamstrung by political decisions that have denied tracks the opportunity to supplement wagering revenue with income from slot machines or other forms of gaming. All surrounding racing states afford racing some form of gaming revenue, which has boosted purses well beyond those offered in Illinois, siphoning off horses and deepening the spiral.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn twice vetoed gaming expansion bills that passed both houses of the legislature, claiming they lacked sufficient regulatory oversight. Yet Quinn approved legislation allowing slot machines in neighborhood taverns, fraternal lodges and other venues by local option, further diluting the gaming market.
Another proposed gaming expansion bill is hung up in the legislature as part of a much bigger political standoff. Hopes are high, however, that when a breakthrough of that logjam is achieved, it will include approval of a gaming bill that will permit full-scale casino operations at the tracks.
As a subplot during the dates hearing, Byrne attempted several times to raise concerns about the welfare of horses and backstretch workers who might be left stranded when Maywood ceases operations at the end of September. She asked whether hundreds of those horses might wind up in slaughterhouses.
"It's not going to happen," said Maywood president Duke Johnston. "There's not going to be a single horse slaughtered."
But David McCaffrey, president of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association, was less sanguine about the prospects. Asked if he agreed with Johnston's assertion, McCaffrey said, "No. Certainly not (stated) that emphatically." He said few Illinois-bred harness horses are competitive in other states, limiting the potential market. "You cannot say unequivocally that no horses will go to slaughter," he said.
Chairman Jeffrey Brincat said the issue will be on the October IRB agenda.

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