Horse racing in the Land of Lincoln is set to resume Saturday after Hawthorne Race Course had its amended schedule approved by the Illinois Racing Board at a specially convened meeting Friday.
There has been no live racing in Illinois since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and tracks in the state will have spectatorless or “studio racing” as part of the guidelines established by both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state’s Department of Agriculture.
“What will happen is we’ll get some semblance of normalcy back to the industry,” Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, told US Bets. “We’re thrilled to death we can start back and hopefully start paying for our horses.”
The board deferred voting on Arlington International Racecourse’s amended schedule and recessed until Monday at 10 a.m. CDT to address that. Arlington Park and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association are in negotiations to end a contract dispute that has run more than five months, and there appears to have been enough progress for IRB Commissioner Thomas McCauley and Executive Director Domenic DiCera to join the two sides Saturday morning at Hawthorne for further talks.
Arlington Park backtracks from previous statements
Arlington Park’s decision to hold studio racing should it reach a deal with the ITHA is a reversal from its comments at the May 22 meeting, when track President Tony Petrillo cited high operating costs and would not make a commitment to it. That was met with some pointed questions from McCauley, and the protracted holdout with the ITHA also led the commissioner to prod Petrillo to get a deal done on that front.
As part of the capital bill that legalized sports betting in Illinois last June, the two sides were supposed to have a signed deal in place Jan. 1.
In terms of his optimism for that deal being completed over the next two days, ITHA Executive Director David McCaffrey offered a “5” on a scale of 1 to 10 when talking to US Bets. He was pleased Arlington made movement on some points, and he hopes to have a contract in place for racing this year and then look ahead to 2021, which is the last year Arlington Park owner Churchill Downs Inc. has committed to racing there.
Optimism abounds at Hawthorne
Despite the lack of racing, there has not been a lack of action at Hawthorne. Its backstretch was in use when COVID-19 shutdowns began, resulting in many horsemen and trainers taking up residence. Since those horsemen and trainers were deemed essential workers to take care of the horses, there has been much work behind the scenes over the past few months to get ready to start racing again.
“The biggest thing as a trainer that was frustrating was you see other states get specific dates for reopening,” Angela Coleman explained. “In Indiana, it was June 14, Ohio was given May 28. Each jurisdiction was given a specific date they could reopen for racing and we (Illinois), literally, it was kind of last minute and we were ready to go the next day.
“Our business is a little different, it’s not like a hardware store you turn the lights on and you’re ready to go. We’re on a training schedule, it’s more complex. I’m super excited, but it’s a little bit of a mad scramble.”
Fairmount Park also had its amended race schedule approved by the board and will resume racing Monday. It will have 28 days of live racing with post times of 4:30 p.m. local and also have live racing on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, which was postponed to Sept. 5 due to the pandemic.