Churchill Downs, Illinois Horsemen Miss Deadline

Churchill Downs, owners of Arlington International Racecourse (L.) in Illinois, and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (ITHA) missed a December 31 contract deadline. The ITHA says Churchill was "threatening the future of live racing at Arlington by refusing to commit to a contract with higher purses."

Churchill Downs, Illinois Horsemen Miss Deadline

A December 31 deadline has passed for Churchill Downs Inc., owners of Arlington International Racecourse, to sign a contract with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, as required by the state’s new gambling law.

At issue is purse levels for the upcoming season, which horsemen say will suffer due to Churchill Downs’ refusal to offer casino games at the Arlington Heights racetrack.

For more than a decade, both Arlington and the horsemen lobbied state legislators to allow casino gambling at the track. But after lawmakers approved expanded gambling in June, in Churchill Downs announced in August it would not seek permission to offer casino-style games. Churchill Downs said it could not make enough profit under the new law which requires racetracks to contribute a portion of its casino revenue to racing purses.

In a statement, the ITHA, representing 2,500 thoroughbred horse owners and trainers who work at Arlington said Churchill Downs is “threatening the future of live racing at Arlington by refusing to commit to a contract” with higher purses. The group accused Churchill Downs of deceiving state elected officials and the racing industry by enlisting their support to pass the gaming expansion measure to boost the profits at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines; Churchill Downs acquired a majority stake in Rivers in March.

Churchill has offered an average of $130,000 in daily purse money for the 68 scheduled live racing dates starting May 1. That compares to about $174,000 per day in Minnesota and $180,000 in Indiana. The horsemen are asking Churchill for at least $200,000 per day, which they said will help attract quality stables to the track and enable Illinois’ horseracing industry to be more competitive.

The ITHA statement also said Churchill Downs is considering moving its racing license out of Arlington Heights to another Chicago-area community or Illinois location. “The loss of Arlington would be devastating to the community of Arlington Heights as it is the city’s largest employer seasonally,” according to a statement issued by Arlington Park last year.

Churchill Downs officials have stated they were committed to keeping horseracing at Arlington through 2021 at Arlington, which began offering live horseracing 1927.

The ITHA says Churchill Downs should “move over” and allow other interested parties to buy the property and contends that there are two groups interested in buying the track. The association didn’t identify the potential buyers.

“The important thing is finding someone with the money,” says ITHA President Michael Campbell. “Both prospective buyers clearly have the interest and the resources.”