Illinois Racing Board establishes working equalization group to address impact of COVID-19

by Neil Milbert

With a cloud of uncertainty hovering overhead, the Illinois Racing Board met Friday (April 24) and agreed to Hawthorne Race Course president Tim Carey’s petition to establish a working equalization group to address the impact on the 2020 calendar because of Governor J.B. Pritzer’s decision to extend the coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home order through May 30.

“This whole situation has created an atmosphere where there are a lot of unknowns,” said the board’s newly-appointed chairman Daniel Beiser. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like for the horsemen, for the track owners.

“I think the concept (of a group made up of representatives on the tracks, the horsemen and Racing Board members and staff) is a strong one in light of the situation we find ourselves in. That’s why I think it’s important to put a group together and start talking about this. It makes total sense to have everyone involved.”

Beiser asked the board’s executive director, Domenic DiCera, to put together the group prior to the next board meeting on May 22.

The Hawthorne harness meeting that began on Feb. 15, and was to continue through Sept. 20, was put on hold on March 15. Following the harness meeting, Hawthorne is scheduled to hold a thoroughbred meeting running from Oct. 2 through Dec. 30.

“We’ve lost 17 live days and 41 (simulcast) host days (out of 92 scheduled live days and 342 host days),” Carey told the board. “We have more than 400 horses on our grounds and more than 200 of them are thoroughbreds (holdovers from the 2019 fall/winter meeting that ended Jan. 4). No other racetrack in the country has that situation. There are 444 individuals working with the thoroughbreds and 80 with the harness.”

Complicating the situation at Hawthorne is the situation at Arlington International Racecourse, which has May 1-Sept. 30 thoroughbred dates.

At Friday’s meeting the board unanimously approved Arlington’s request to suspend the opening of its meeting “due to the COVID-19 pandemic conditions and its economic consequences.”

Meanwhile, the track and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) still haven’t reached agreement on a 2020 contract.

The main bone of contention is the length of the contract. Arlington wants it to be for two years, while the horsemen want it to be limited to 2020.

“We stand ready to sign a one-year deal to race July 4-Sept. 26,” said Chris Block, a member of the ITHA board of directors who is a thoroughbred trainer, owner and breeder. “The uncertainty with the COVID epidemic makes it very difficult to see why Arlington is asking for a two-year deal.”

Presumably, because of the contract impasse, Arlington hasn’t opened its backstretch but there are other conceivable impediments.

“We’re working with local health officials, the Cook County Department of Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health to determine conditions acceptable to opening the backstretch,” Arlington president Tony Petrillo said.

“They’re concerned with individuals coming in from out of state and we (annually) have horsemen coming from a wide geographical area — Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas.”

Block said it’s important that Arlington open its backstretch as soon as possible to prepare for its meeting, which Petrillo warned might be reduced to one month in order to fund adequate purses.

The uncertainty regarding the reopening of the network of track-operated off-track betting parlors to fund the purse accounts of the harness and thoroughbred horsemen is another significant problem.

In extending his stay-at-home order, Governor Pritzger modified it and allowed some non-essential business to reopen with major limitations.

“This is something we’ll have to figure out as we go,” the governor said, indicating that further modifications might be made.

After the current order expires May 30, Hawthorne, Arlington and the harness and thoroughbred horsemen are hoping that the OTBs will be allowed to reopen and will be ready to do so by mid-June.

“It looks like we’ll have to do studio racing without fans (at the track),” Carey said. “But there might be landlords (at OTB parlors in bar/restaurants) who don’t reopen.”

Carey wants the working equalization group to “address the loss of commissions and purses during the time the governor’s order is in effect and the impact on the 2020 racing calendar and to set a hearing to modify the dates order and the allocation of host and racing dates.”

“This is an unprecedented time,” Carey said. “All parties have to work through the issues for the betterment of Illinois racing.”

Not only is the Hawthorne harness meeting having an unforeseen recess, so too is the construction project for its on-track casino that is permitted as a result of Governor Pritzger signing the major gambling expansion bill approved by the legislature last year.

Carey had hoped that the project could be put on the fast track by discontinuing the traditional day-time spring thoroughbred meeting this year and substituting the night-time harness meet with the objective of having the Hawthorne racino-ready by the start of the fall thoroughbred meeting.

But now, with no revenue coming in and with major declines in revenue a certainty when racing resumes, the reality is that Hawthorne won’t become a racino until sometime next year.