IRB Passes Rules Amid Industry Turmoil

Racetracks, and horsemen and breeders, at odds over strategy to right industry.

The Illinois Racing Board Jan. 26, over the objection of horsemen and breeders, advanced a request by the state's three remaining tracks for more flexibility in carding races.

The proposal would permit racing secretaries to drop some races originally listed in the condition book and scrap 39-year-old rules governing how those races would be replaced from the list of substitute and extra races.

Arlington International Racecourse, Hawthorne Race Course, and Fairmount Park joined in the request, which was opposed by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation.

The tracks argued the change would permit them to use races with fuller fields, increasing the attractiveness of the races in the simulcast environment, improving pari-mutuel handle and, ultimately, benefitting the purse account.

Horsemen argued scrapping the rules would allow tracks to dump more expensive races in favor of those with cheaper purses, regardless of prospective field size, and rob owner and trainers of any certainty about when they could reasonably expect to run their horses.

The set-to reflected a recent paradigm shift in Illinois racing. Tracks, which have fought among themselves for years about dates and simulcast revenue, have joined forces after forcing the two Chicago-area harness tracks out of business.

The Illinois THA, which has had plenty of issues with Arlington in recent years, had enjoyed good relationships with Hawthorne before the acrimonious dispute before the IRB while Arlington had actively courted the ITBOF as a potential replacement for the Ilinois THA as horsemen's bargaining agent.

Further complicating matters, the public dispute played out as state legislators again are being asked to approve a bill that would permit casinos at the tracks, a measure seen as critical to survival of the industry.

The changes are critical, Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo said, "so we can organize our race program and put forth a better product that will earn more money, more revenue for the state, and more money for purses."

Hawthorne president Tim Carey said his spring Thoroughbred meet will end before the rules change could take effect. But he said the meet can be a test of whether horsemen will provide enough stock to alleviate the problem of short fields.

"I hope the horsemen provide plenty of horses for our spring meet and prove us wrong," Carey said, noting that field size is a critical consideration for gaining simulcast and television traction.

Fairmount president Brian Zander said he agrees with the tracks' positions, but also said: "Where we're at now, we haven't met a six-horse field that we didn't like."

David Block, a director of the ITBOF, spoke on his own behalf as a breeder. He said temporary suspension of the rules at Arlington last September led to significant losses for his horses.

"Time and time again, I was forced to run in a claiming race" because state-bred allowances were dropped from the overnights, he said. "I don't breed to run in claiming races."

Block said the situation is dire. "You'd be a fool to start out in this business," said Block, who has been a breeder for 30 years. "I'm stuck."

Block's son, Chris Block, who trains many of the Team Block horses, acknowledged the problem of short fields but questioned the need for a permanent change. He noted Arlington's first condition book for 2016 reflects a significant increase in daily purses over last year's average of $120,000, which should lead to an increase in the horse population and bigger fields.

"This is not something that needs to be permanent," Chris Block said. "We should look at doing this as a one-year deal. It's premature to make this move when I'm expecting a heck of a lot better meet than last year. That's for sure."

The IRB voted 6-2 to initiate rule-making to implement the change. The vote starts a process that could take as long as three months before a state agency eventually allows or prohibits the change.

The IRB, at one of the longest non-dates meetings in its recent history, also debated proposed changes in Arlington's stall application form that would permit the track to penalize trainers whose horses train at Arlington only to run elsewhere. The changes also would increase the deposits charged for on-track housing facilities and require that trainers shipping horses off the grounds certify that those animals are not being sent, directly or indirectly, to slaughter.

Horsemen argued some of the changes are, in fact, proposed modifications in their contract with Arlington that should be decided through negotiation.

The IRB also approved allocation of $8.9 million in "recapture" funding from purse accounts to the various tracks. The money is designed to replace losses in on-track wagering that resulted from the implementation of full-card simulcasts in the 1990s.

The board heard a report from the defunct harness tracks, Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, that bankruptcy proceedings have turned up no prospective buyers. Preparations are underway to auction off Maywood's facilities, and a real estate agent is being engaged to sell the Balmoral property in the far southern Chicago suburbs as a real estate redevelopment opportunity.