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Chicago was once, a very long time ago, a capital of American horse racing, if based on volume alone.
Now, there are just two, each on the cusp of very different fates.
The famous one, Arlington Park, is mired, at least for fans, in the confusion and angst of its very survival, which might be divulged in as little as 15 months.
The other, Hawthorne Race Course, has embarked, given a new slate, upon its future with the opportunity it waited so long to get.
We revisit because the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and Churchill Downs Inc., owner and operator of Arlington, reached agreement on a truncated racing schedule for 2020. Pandemic aside, the agreement was required to be final at the beginning of the year.
They'll start on July 23 and run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through September 27, first post 2 p.m. every day. Arlington Million Day, which also includes the Beverly D. and the Secretariat Stakes on Arlington's vaunted turf course, will not be run.
Both sides thanked Illinois Racing Board commissioner Thomas McCauley and executive director Domenic DiCera for their efforts in reaching an agreement. My feeling is that those two and others from the IRB said something like, "This ends now."
ITHA came out of the talks well with Hawthorne losing one skirmish over dark days.
Arlington will not be allowed to divert money from the horsemen's purse fund for stakes races. That is unless it accumulates nearly $10 million in purse proceeds, which would require a huge bump up of handle. The same will hold true for 2021, with Arlington having the option of subsidizing stakes races itself.
But the real stakes explosion came because of the impossibility of running a prep schedule or even fitting in Million Day; severely curtailed international travel; and the absence of fans.
"Arlington, of course, is a place that relies heavily on retail," ITHA president Michael B. Campbell told me. Meaning, the track depends greatly on getting butts in the seats and selling the food and drinks that ensue. Arlington has simulcast betting sprinkled throughout the building and a separate OTB way over on the third turn. When fans return.
Recapture is an archaic and complicated calculation from the days when off-track simulcasting, to tracks and OTBs, was coming into its own in the 1980s. Tracks complained that they could lose money on wagers not made through the track. With Illinois one of the last states, that I could find, still taking recapture money, the track owner has the right to keep that money, taking it out the horsemen's purse account. Hawthornes circles it back into purses. CDI keeps it, about $4.5 million this year.
Can we trust CDI?
There was controversy early this year when the prospect of wagers placed at Arlington through its TwinSpires.com account deposit wagering service not being accounted for arose. Campbell said back then that with Arlington's very strong urging of fans to open mobile accounts, even at the track, state racing officials were trying to find advance-deposit wagering (ADW) accounting in the books. CDI is very secretive about its finances.
ITHA last week also described Arlington's near incognito operating of its OTBs, not selling programs or even allowing ticket cashing at the OTBs that are open. All I'll say is the last time I was at the Weed Street OTB in Chicago, I found the cinderblock bunker highly claustrophobic and wouldn't go in there with Buzz Aldrin's moon suit with this virus thing going on.
Hawthorne also lost out on picking up a handful of dark days, while waiting for Arlington to open.
When our tracks are running their meets, they become the host track for purposes of receiving, in another complicated formula, portions of revenues made on weekdays in the Illinois Track Wagering Network when neither Hawthorne or Arlington are running.
Hawthorne lost a bid to get dark days in the run-up to Arlington's opening. Hawthorne had only accumulated a handful of dark days before being shut down by the pandemic. At the IRB meeting, Hawthorne assistant general manager John Walsh had a good reason. Arlington did not.
Walsh said his track had racked up nearly $750,000 so far in expenses to keep its barns open for thoroughbreds, while also in the midst now of a standardbred meet. Arlington's barns have been closed. Sounds fair.
But CDI and Arlington, demonstrating time after time its disinterest in investing in horse racing, came up with a sob story about how $450,000 in drainage system repairs are required on the backside before the track can open. SO WHAT? That's a capital expense, the building.
Keep in mind that Arlington does not want to reinvest recapture money into purses. They refused to apply for the casino license they whined and cried about for years and years because it did not, once again, want to reinvest any casino revenues back into racing, which is a requirement by the Illinois Gaming Board.
I asked Campbell what it's like to be in a battle royale with Arlington every year to get as little as a bucket of water out of them to support racing.
"I go back to (CDI CEO William) Carstanjen last fall saying that it was with a heavy heart that CDI wouldn't be applying for a gaming license," Campbell said. "Who doesn't apply for a casino license?"
A no-bid license the state gave them.
"We're interested in the game and the animals and our families. We thought that if ever in the world there was a safe haven for racing, a bastion for racing, It would be Arlington," Campbell said. "We're up against a corporate mentality."
The image I have is the guy whose foot trips over the intravenous drug tube or the power cord for the respirator and, tired of the whole thing, just lets the patient die. Oops!
Rumors of a sale aren't going away so, CDI, sell the track already and get out of town.
The Pride Of Stickney
Meanwhile, on the other end of the suburb-o-plex is the pride of Stickney, Hawthorne Race Course.
With its casino license approval anticipated as early as next month, Hawthorne director of publicity and racing analyst Jim Miller said gaming could be in place in about 12 months.
Miller said Hawthorne is practicing patience.
"If we have to take a little bit of a hit right now, we know it will pay off in the future," Miller said, alluding to the broader underpinnings casino revenues will give its purses. "If we need to expand racing dates in the future (to react to Arlington's fate) we're ready to do so."
Hawthorne would not have been able to run its upcoming fall meet without churning the recapture money back into purses.
As for the Arlington agreement, "The last thing we wanted to see is the horsemen not have an opportunity to race in Illinois for an extended period, and then running the risk of losing them to another state," Miller said.
As for the blueprints, Miller said the casino facilities will be built inside the current building.
"We hope to have the sportsbook up sooner." The track will not install temporary slots to begin generating revenue. "We just want to do this right."
The world is her oyster.
Midnight Bisou, nearly skipping down the final furlong, blitzed the Fleur de Lis Stakes at Churchill on Saturday. If nothing else, just watch her move (#5, red cap) on the turn and moving into the stretch. SeeYa!
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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