by Bob Kieckhefer
The Illinois Racing Board Sept. 27 rejected a 2011 racing dates proposal that would have eliminated the winter/spring meet at Hawthorne Race Course, including the grade III Illinois Derby.
However, IRB chairman Joseph Sinopoli said it was only the recent payment to Hawthorne of nearly $30 million in casino funding that convinced him not to pull the plug on the early-year dates.
Arlington Park, arguing the 2011 spring dates at Hawthorne had produced dismal numbers, proposed starting the Chicago-area live racing season at Arlington the week before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) the first Saturday in May and using “dark day” spring simulcast revenue to improve purses during its own summer meet.
Sinopoli said while a direct comparison of Hawthorne’s spring and Arlington’s summer 2011 numbers is difficult, “Arlington Park’s outperformance (of Hawthorne) on every metric was striking.” And he said Arlington spent twice as much on advertising and marketing and five times as much on capital improvements as Hawthorne.
As a result, Sinopoli said had been listening with a sympathetic ear to Arlington’s suggestion that by protecting the Hawthorne spring meet, “we may be unwittingly hastening the overall demise of Illinois racing.”
But he said his “thinking changed dramatically” upon the court-ordered release in August of $140 million in “impact fees” paid by the state’s largest casinos under terms of an old law but held in escrow during legal challenges. That money, he said, loosened Hawthorne’s financial strait jacket sufficiently to enable the track to run a successful spring meet.
Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller testified the track expects that with additional purse money available, the horse population and field size will increase, leading to improvement in attendance and pari-mutuel handle next spring.
Sinopoli proposed and the IRB unanimously adopted a 2012 schedule similar to this year’s, with Hawthorne opening in February and running through April, Arlington racing April 30-Sept. 30, and Hawthorne closing out the year with live racing Oct. 1-Dec. 31.
How long the status quo can be preserved remains an issue, Sinopoli said, because the impact fee legislation has expired and a bill authorizing slot machines at racetracks is stalled. Sinopoli said if Quinn signs the slots legislation that passed the House and Senate during the spring session, “The whole landscape could change so dramatically that this conversation may not be relevant anymore.”
The slots bill would expand casino gaming dramatically elsewhere in Illinois, including a land-based casino in the Chicago Loop. Quinn has voiced reservations but stopped short of promising a veto.
The bill, while it has passed both houses of the legislature, has been held in the Senate through a rules maneuver while leaders try to negotiate a compromise with the governor.