As the reconfigured Illinois Racing Board and executives at two of the state’s three horse racing tracks attempted to find a way to salvage a portion of the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Arlington International Racecourse President Tony Petrillo was put on the defensive Friday by his Hawthorne Race Course counterpart and the president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
It was the first meeting for the IRB since late January, with February’s scheduled meeting canceled due to a lack of agenda items and March’s canceled at the outset of the pandemic. In late February, three members — including Chairman Jeffrey Brincat — were forced to resign for allegedly making illegal political contributions.
One of the provisions of the gaming bill Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law last June that legalized sports betting in the Land of Lincoln also barred board members from making any political contributions, resulting in the resignations of Brincat, Edgar Ramirez, and Gregory Sronce. That left the IRB with five members — one short of a quorum — but Pritzker addressed that by naming Charles MacKelvie to the board last month, and it was announced Friday that Pritzker elevated Daniel Beiser to chairman.
Neither horse racing nor simulcasting is currently taking place at any of Illinois’ three racetracks, which also includes Fairmount Park. The ongoing impasse in contract negotiations between Arlington Park and the ITHA coupled with Pritzker’s recent extension of the state’s stay-at-home order through May 30 has thrown the season’s racing schedule across the state into question.
Petrillo, Hawthorne President Carey clash
Hawthorne Race Course President Tim Carey called for the formation of a “working equalization group” to address the losses accrued during the stay-at-home order as well as a modification of the 2020 racing calendar for host and racing dates. Carey noted that Hawthorne has been hard-hit due to the pandemic, losing 41 host days and 17 live racing days and estimating $3.1 million in losses between the two.
He also said Hawthorne is taking on additional expenses because from housing both harness and thoroughbred horses on its backside, adding, “No other racetrack in the country has that expense, that situation, other than us.” Carey said Hawthorne is housing 444 residents associated with thoroughbred horses, raising concerns about social distancing guidelines and the possibility it could delay the opening of the harness meet.
Carey said there was “pushback” from the Arlington Heights Health Department regarding the capability of moving the thoroughbreds to Arlington while the counterparts from Stickney, Cook County, and the state of Illinois were all in favor of being capable of making the move. Hawthorne spokesman Jim Miller said the two tracks have not had direct discussions on the matter, noting via email that Hawthorne was “working under the assumption the Arlington Heights Dept. of Public Health would be in contact with them.”
Carey said he wanted to have harness racing in mid-May via “studio racing,” which meant there would be no crowds, and the working group would address those issues and how to open off-track betting sites. Petrillo felt it was a better idea for “Arlington and Hawthorne to meet first and discuss the issues related to that race meet agreement and any legal ramifications from that.”
Petrillo noted Arlington Park would also suffer from the loss of dark time through the end of May, which came to “35-plus days for us as well.” He added, “To try and project what the future may look like when Hawthorne takes over is a better prospect than Arlington opening in June,” while continuing to work within the parameters of the race meet agreement.
Carey acknowledged the agreement but also noted, “The whole world is a whole lot different than July 31 when we signed that agreement” and added to Petrillo that “we look at the reality of this industry and we deal with reality within this industry.” Carey also noted, “Arlington made millions and we lost millions” in January and February.
That prompted an interjection from Petrillo, who said Arlington “lost two million dollars in the first quarter of the year” and added, “Even if we run a race meet, we’re still going to lose another million dollars.”
Carey sharply fired back at Petrillo: “Answer the question, Tony, did you or did you not get all your host status of January and February?”
Petrillo responded, “Sure we did. And now we’re taking it on the chin from now for the remainder of the month.” The two engaged in continued crosstalk until the commissioners defused the situation.
Campbell voices concern over racing future at Arlington
After the board asked Executive Director Dominic DiCera to potentially lead Carey’s suggested committee and to report his recommendation at next month’s meeting, ITHA President Michael Campbell again took aim at Arlington Park’s owner, Churchill Downs International, for its decision last August not to pursue a racino license — something both Hawthorne and Fairmount Park have done in addition to applying for sports betting licenses, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.
Campbell said that decision “impacted this industry in a negative way throughout the country” while also noting there are no live racing plans beyond 2021. The ITHA president wanted to know if Arlington would race “spectator-free” and wanted assurances there would be racing beyond “Millions Day,” which is comprised of stakes races.
Campbell also claimed Arlington Park “has access right now to about $9 million between post-time money they’ve earned for themselves and recapture … so it’s possible they could mothball the whole meet,” referring to the 2020 schedule, while stressing the desire to be part of the committee Carey sought.
Petrillo retorted to the board, “The numbers Mr. Campbell referred to, they haven’t been provided to us. His analysis, those are unfounded figures … and we haven’t seen those.”
Beiser again regained control of the meeting, noting, “We have to realize this whole situation has created a lot of unknown … we’re all in this ‘we don’t know’ set of mind and that’s why it’s important that we get together and talk about this.
“It makes total sense to have everybody that is involved in the whole industry involved,” he added before moving forward with the request to have DiCara look into the formation of the group ahead of the next scheduled meeting May 22.