Illinois 2018 Schedule May Hinge on Legislative Help

The Illinois Racing Board has approved a 2018 schedule roughly mirroring 2017 dates but only after hearing dire predictions for the industry's future absent financial help from state lawmakers.

Fairmount Park said it may have to pull the plug halfway through its 2018 schedule if the Illinois General Assembly does not provide some kind of influx of new funding.

Hawthorne Race Course president and general manager Tim Carey said the state's racing program is "going down. Unfortunately, it's going down quicker than we thought."

And Tony Petrillo, general manager of Arlington International Racecourse, said the tracks had hoped for a multiyear agreement on dates but could not do so "because of uncertainty about what the legislature will do to infuse additional money into the industry."

Illinois horsemen's groups did not testify about the 2018 schedule other than to agree they have approved variations from requirements on minimum days per week and races per day.

Carey said hopes for funding the coming year's racing rest on a proposal that the state fulfill a long-ignored statutory requirement to replace money lost from purse accounts through "recapture"—a scheme devised two decades ago to shield tracks from loss of revenue when full-card simulcasting was introduced to Illinois.

Follow-up legislation mandates, essentially, that the state make the purse accounts whole through a new appropriation of funds. That happened only briefly and the legislature, despite the legal mandate, has not appropriated replacement funds since the mid 1990s.

Funding the mandate for 2018 would require an appropriation of approximately $11.9 million, all of which would go to purses, industry officials said.

"This industry has come upon extremely difficult times," Carey said as Hawthorne, Arlington, and Fairmount jointly presented their proposed schedule. "We do not have the tools to compete," he stated.

"What we need is to take the handcuffs off so we can compete nationally on an equal basis."

Petrillo added, "We're not asking for a handout. We're asking, 'Please fulfill your statutory responsibility to fund recapture.' We're asking for economic opportunity."

The industry for many years has supported legislation to expand gaming in Illinois, including the authorization of slot machines or full casino gaming at tracks, to compete with surrounding states which have similar types of alternative funding. The legislature twice passed gaming expansion legislation but was unable to override vetoes by former Gov. Pat Quinn.

Stopgap funding provided by taxing the state's richest casinos ran out two years ago.

The push for funding recapture comes after the legislature bucked the current governor to end a two-year stalemate that essentially froze the state's finances. Over Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto, lawmakers approved both the first state budget in two years and a major increase in the state income tax. The state, however, still faces a huge backlog of bills and a massive underfunding of state employee pensions.

The 2018 schedule, approved by a unanimous vote, provides for Hawthorne to open the Thoroughbred season March 2, racing through April 29, and to finish the year from Oct. 2-Dec. 31. Hawthorne was allocated 55 live race programs during those periods.

Arlington was awarded 71 live programs from April 30-Oct. 1.

Fairmount was awarded 41 dates from May 1-Sept. 22 but Zander said the downstate track already faces a purse overpayment of some $2 million and faces a bleak future without help from the state. Fairmount's cut of the recapture replacement funds basically would cover that overpayment and allow the track to start with a fresh slate going forward, he said.

"Something has to happen," he said. "It could be something grandiose like racinos and table games or something small like funding recapture, as is the law.

"Members of the legislature understand this meet could be cut by 50%. Hopefully, they'll understand that this is serious now," Zander added.

While the industry has not always been united in its push for legislation, the new effort seemed to have all hands on deck. In addition to the tracks' united front, Arlington and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association—frequently at odds in the recent past—announced they have signed a new, two-year representation agreement that takes effect Jan. 1, 2018.