Because a supply of equity funds belonging to Fairmount Park is still being held in escrow, the Collinsville, Ill., track will end its 2009 meeting 18 days earlier than planned.
The meet will close Aug. 15, meaning the track will not run the Illinois-bred stakes scheduled for Aug. 25. There are no plans of running the stakes at another track.
The money distribution controversy stems from a Supreme Court ruling made last June stating that Illinois’ four richest riverboat casinos must pay 3% of their profits to horse owners and racetracks.
The law directed 40% of the profits (which are currently at about $84 million) to the state’s five racetracks: Arlington Park, Balmoral Park, Fairmount Park, Hawthorne Race Course, and Maywood Park. The other 60% would go to purses at the tracks.
The money was kept in escrow, however, due to a situation where former Ill. governor Rod Blagojevich was caught on tape talking about how he could get a significant contribution for his fundraising campaign from John Johnston, one of the state's harness track owners.
“(Blagojevich) would have signed (the bill) anyway; it was an extension of a bill that had already passed,” said Gary Moore, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation. “So the riverboats took advantage of that situation, and they filed a complaint saying that the bill was tainted and was only going to be signed because (Blagojevich) was getting a bribe.”
In the meantime, a Will County, Ill., judge assigned to the litigation has twice delayed making a decision on the matter, which has been tied up in lawsuits for months. Another ruling is scheduled for Aug. 24.
“Fairmount Park was relying on the release of the funds so it could keep the purse levels at or above where they’re at now,” said Moore.
Lanny Brooks, executive director of the Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association, said Fairmount started its meet this year more than $500,000 in the red. The track is currently operating $2.4 million in the red without the boost from the equity funds. Brooks, along with Illinois' Department of Agriculture, made the decision not to run the stakes at Fairmount this year.
"We had offers to run them in Chicago (at Arlington Park), but I felt that the Chicago horsemen would dominate the entries and win all of the purse money," said Brooks. "I feel that these stakes belong to Fairmount horsemen and therefore should be contested by primarily our horsemen. As far as the future, I made it very clear to (the Department of Agriculture) that this is a one-time thing and we fully expect to run the six races next year at Fairmount."
By law, Fairmount was required to apply for a 150-day meet next year from Jan. 1-Dec. 31. Officials will commit to the dates the track can actually run at a hearing Sept. 24, however. If the equity funds don’t come through, they will likely be forced to run another shortened schedule. Fairmount’s 2009 meet started April 6 and was slated to run through Sept. 26.
“(Fairmount) is in the hardest predicament, because their purse levels have never really been high to begin with,” said Moore. “The owners and trainers need as many racing opportunities as they can to stay in the business. When you take away all those opportunities, how do they make it? Now it’s just a training track, and they have the added expenses of shipping to Indiana or Hawthorne or Arlington.”