The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association said it believes it can find common ground with Arlington International Racecourse as it moves into contract negotiations and also work with track officials to better position Illinois racing.
In a statement released Feb. 27, Illinois THA president Mike Campbell said new executive director David McCaffrey has been charged with directing the negotiations in advance of the 2016 Arlington meet that begins May 6. Campbell said he is encouraged by track management's response to a call for a "prompt agreement."
"I appreciate that our respective organizations have had past challenges in reconciling competing points of view, but I trust we can overcome those differences to serve and protect the best interests of our industry," Campbell said. "Owners and trainers soon will be making their destination decisions for this year; swift finalization of our contract will project mutual confidence in the quality of this meet and will significantly aid our collective efforts to boost field size and fill races."
Campbell said the Illinois THA has offered to work with Arlington to promote the upcoming meet. "The leadership of the ITHA respects Arlington and its tremendous accomplishments," he said.
Numerous factors are responsible for declines in the Illinois racing and breeding programs, not the least of which is a saturated in-state gambling market and competition from tracks in other states that supplement purses with gaming revenue. The situation has worsened over the last five years.
In 2011 Arlington raced 86 days and paid $21.16 million in purses for an average of $246,095 per day, according to The Jockey Club Information Systems. In addition to purses, $5.95 million was paid in Illinois-registered owner awards.
Last year Arlington offered 77 racing programs with total purses of only $13.47 million—the average was $174,984—with another $3.32 million in Illinois-registered owner awards. Average field size in 2015 was 7.18 versus 8.34 in 2011.
The last time the number of mares bred in Illinois topped 1,000 was 2004, when 1,108 were bred. In 2014, the last year for which a firm number is available, only 284 mares were bred in the state. There were 123 registered stallions in Illinois in 2004 but only 39 in 2014.
Campbell signaled a need for horsemen and tracks to present a united front during the current legislative session. Efforts to win approval for racetrack gaming have repeatedly failed in Illinois, primarily because of disagreement among state government leaders.
"The sooner our contract negotiations are behind us, the sooner our industry can refocus attention on winning passage of the agreed gaming legislation that will, finally, position Illinois horse racing to more adequately compete with racing in other states already permitting their tracks to supplement purses with slots revenue," Campbell said. "The spring legislative session is underway and unity across our industry—among tracks, horsemen, and breeders—has never been so vital."
The Illinois Thoroughbred racing season kicks off March 11 at Hawthorne Race Course. Because Balmoral Park and Maywood Park ended up in bankruptcy and were shuttered last year, Hawthorne took over all the Standardbred dates in the Chicago area and will reopen for harness racing May 6.