Officials Reflect on Illinois Racing Woes

After financial woes and labor disputes, two officials weighed in on the situation.

Following a deal that ended a labor dispute between the Illinois Racing Board and state employees and restored Fairmount Park’s 52 race dates for 2010, two horse racing officials reflected on the aftermath of the situation.

Lanny Brooks, executive director of the local Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association, is glad the dispute, which nearly cost the track the majority of its race dates, is behind them. But he gravely noted how the situation was not resolved without some severe consequences.

“Unfortunately, one of the four main (union) workers committed suicide over this thing,” said Brooks of Rodney Boatwright, 56, who died Dec. 15. Boatwright had worked in security for many years with the IRB.
Brooks said that during the labor disputes, Boatwright feared he would lose his health insurance benefits.

“His wife has a heart condition with a defibrillator in her chest and losing insurance to him was the end of the line,” said Brooks. “As it turned out, (the state employees) did get their health insurance…it’s just a shame that he couldn’t have hung in there to see it happen. That’s one of the things that happened during this intense negotiation.”

But Marc Laino, executive director of the IRB, said the organization had assured the state employees early on they would frontload the scheduling of the employees’ work days to guarantee benefits at least through June 2011. He claimed Boatwright’s suicide had nothing to do with the situation at Fairmount.

“That’s one of the lowest things I’ve ever heard…to say (Boatwright) took his own life because of the labor dispute is absolutely ridiculous,” said Laino, who claimed Boatwright had health problems that had contributed to his death.

Fairmount was awarded 52 actual live dates in September after its financial status was examined and a purse structure was put in place. The IRB had decided to scale back the season to just three days due to lack of funding and employee disputes in early January over how much they would be paid. Due to a binding arbitration in 2008, the IRB had been forced to pay employees for 150 days of work even though the track only had a 60-day meet. In 2009, they paid employees for 130 days of racing, with a 57-day live meet.

This year the IRB said it could not afford to pay workers for 130 days of racing and cut the dates to three days when the negotiations stalled. The dates were then restored when Brian Zander, president and general manager of Fairmount, petitioned the IRB with some conditions.

Zander said he would raise pari-mutuel taxes at the track to help cover some costs and also agreed employees would be paid for a maximum of 75 days over the 52-day race meet, which is the maximum days the IRB said it could afford.

Laino said the union employees had accepted the terms of the 2010 agreement with under the following conditions: the IRB would pay them for all 75 days, regardless if the track had to end its meet earlier than planned (Fairmount had to cut its meet short last year due to funding); steward secretary Sandy Cox would be removed form a list of workers that had been slated to be laid off due to budgetary reasons; and the IRB would give extra compensation to employees who had worked at other fair circuit tracks in addition to Fairmount last season.

Laino said 2009 marked the seventh consecutive year that Fairmount has seen declines in revenue. “The revenue (the track) generates no longer supports its regulation,” he said. “We’re currently $1 million in deficit. Many state budgets are in crisis. Resources are limited, and the (Illinois) industry no longer supports the cost of horse racing.”

In contrast to Laino‘s outlook on the state's industry and Fairmount‘s overall budget, Brooks noted how he saw positive things coming in the future for the track.

“I’m disappointed that (we’re not racing) 150 or even 102 days, but with advance deposit wagering now the law, and the fact it’s out performing itself, the racing board estimated it would bring in $100 million a year,” said Brooks. “They upped it Jan. 26 to $150 million a year. We are also the only track with a TVG (signal), so we’re doing well with that, and it’s having a great affect on purses.

“So I think next year we’re looking at applying for more days and getting back to a decent program where (workers) can make a living.”