The Illinois Racing Board and the state's horsemen May 22 ratcheted up pressure on Arlington International Racecourse to announce tentative plans for opening its racing season.
Arlington president Tony Petrillo, however, told the board it is up to the governor's office and state and local health officials to determine when relaxation of the COVID-19 pandemic protocols will permit racing, which has been delayed from the May 1 scheduled start date.
Petrillo said the track has heard no firm timeline for making that decision but expects it will not come until the state reaches phase 4 of Gov. J. B. Pritzker's reopening plan—a moving target.
Unlike most other tracks racing through the pandemic or considering reopening, Arlington will not start its season until it is allowed to have spectators in the stands, Petrillo said, citing "cost structures higher than those at other tracks."
Petrillo said Arlington is conducting a survey among horsemen to determine interest in racing at some point during the summer with current results indicating "up to 550" horses might be available. He said Arlington does intend to race.
"We were asked at the last (IRB) meeting, had we considered pulling the plug," he said. "The answer then was, 'No.' The answer is still, 'No.' But spectatorless racing is not possible for Arlington."
The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association pressed for more. Executive director David McCaffrey said the ITHA board has voted unanimously to insist Arlington commit to racing at least 30 days, with or without spectators, to suspend its open stakes races including the Arlington Million (G1T), and to open the backstretch at least 30 days before the start of racing.
Absent those conditions, McCaffrey said, the ITHA requested that the racing board strip Arlington of "dark day" simulcast revenue and shift that funding to Hawthorne Race Course.
"The industry needs clarity and it needs it now," ITHA board member Chris Block said. "Give us some path as to what they're looking for in 2020."
The racing board, after an extended discussion, voted to allow Arlington to retain "dark day" revenue until its next scheduled meeting June 18. But commissioner Thomas McCauley noted little actual revenue is being accrued while the state's off-track betting facilities remain closed.
As OTBs start reopening in the coming week, McCauley said, some revenue will start to flow. He suggested that the IRB advance the date of its June meeting to reconsider allocation of the money, pending further word on Arlington's plans.
McCauley questioned Petrillo closely about why Churchill Downs agreed to reopen without spectators while Arlington insists on having fans in the stands. Both are owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
"I'm still not clear why they could reopen in Kentucky but not in Illinois," he said, "and, second, why we could not get even a tentative date" for racing at Arlington.
Petrillo said the financial structure at Churchill Downs is significantly different from Arlington's because of income from the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) and Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and from historical horse racing gaming machines.
Hawthorne executive Jim Miller said Hawthorne has been working closely with Pritzker's office through the Illinois Department of Agriculture, has approved protocols in place, and stands ready to resume its suspended summer harness meeting quickly when given a go-ahead, with or without spectators.
"We've been given no inkling we'd have to wait for phase 4 to return to racing," Miller said.
Hawthorne also has agreed to forgo taking "recapture" money from the purse account in order to fund its fall/winter Thoroughbred meeting and continues to stable hundreds of Thoroughbreds on its backstretch pending Arlington reopening.
"We're doing this for the industry," Miller said. "We want these horses to be ready to resume racing as soon as possible."
The uncertainty about Arlington's plans is compounded by the fact the track does not have an agreement with the ITHA. The new state racing and gaming law requires an agreement before Jan. 1 of any racing year.
"I don't get that you're not able to come to an agreement," McCauley said. "If there were a commitment to race, that might be resolved very quickly."
Yet another joker in the pack is uncertainty around pending applications for gaming and sports betting licenses for Hawthorne and downstate Fairmount Park. The Illinois Gaming Board originally was expected to act on those applications by the end of 2019, and Hawthorne canceled its spring Thoroughbred meeting so it could start construction of casino facilities. The IGB, however, has taken no action.