The Illinois Racing Board Aug. 14 took the first formal step toward creating rules for handling a potential dispute about which organization should formally represent horsemen at the state's tracks.
Meeting at the State Fairgrounds in Springfield, IRB staff proposed rules that would initially recognize the organizations that currently have contractual relationships with each track. For Arlington International Racecourse and Hawthorne Race Course, that is the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association; for Fairmount Park, the Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
No other organization responded to a request from IRB Chairman William Berry that challengers to the status quo make their intentions known. It is generally expected, however, that the Illinois Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Foundation will mount a challenge to the ITHA, which has had a rocky relationship with Arlington management in recent years.
The uncertainty comes at a difficult time for the industry, which faces severe cutbacks in 2015 unless the Illinois legislature at its fall session okays a gaming bill that Gov. Pat Quinn will sign. Lawmakers twice have passed legislation that would have authorized slots at tracks—providing a significant new revenue source—only to have those bills vetoed.
"We do not need a controversy at this time," ITOBF board member David Block told the state racing board. "We need to be hand-in-hand. We cannot allow ourselves to be put in a position that goes statewide and nationwide that we have a controversy about who will represent horsemen."
Block and ITOBF president Dan Sullivan said the organization's board voted last week to not take any action to challenge the ITHA while there is a chance for legislative action, a decision praised by several IRB members.
"It's the easiest thing in the world for legislators to say, 'You're disunited. Go home,'" said commissioner Thomas McCauley of River Forest.
Berry said he is pushing for rules because the board needs to be ready if and when a conflict does arise. He said orderly rule making need not send a message of conflict or disunity.
"Open discussion is not open warfare," Berry said. "I have great hopes for the fall session. But if that (bill) passes, we have to be ready to handle a challenge."
The draft rules outline put forward by the IRB staff would require a challenging organization to file a notice of challenge to the incumbent. That would trigger an election in which licensed owners and trainers from the preceding year would choose between the two organizations, with 50% plus one of the ballots returned deciding the question.
Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo argued there should be an initial certification before any challenges are initiated. And both the ITHA and the harness horsemen expressed concern that rules not extend to oversight of their internal operations.
Despite those objections, all parties agreed that unity is needed to move gaming legislation through the General Assembly.
After the representation discussion, commissioner Kathy Byrne asked the IRB to authorize "historical wagering" machines at the state's tracks, a plan similar to that adopted successfully in Arkansas through legislation, and in Kentucky through administrative action, and in several other states. The game works similarly to slot machines but is based on randomly selected races that already have been run.
Byrne admitted IRB action on the proposal would complicate the industry's position in the legislature and would not provide as much income as full approval for real slot machines. But she said she is not as optimistic as Berry about passage of legislation and alternatives need to be in place.
"It is incumbent upon us as a board to do what we can to help," Byrne said. "We need to do this and we need to do it now. It's something we can do. It's something we should do. We should do it now."
Horsemen's groups and representatives of both Arlington and Hawthorne said they would consider the proposal. It was scheduled for consideration at either the September IRB meeting, which awards 2015 racing dates, or at a special meeting in early October.
The meeting was scheduled to coincide with the final day of harness racing on the State Fairgrounds' one-mile track.