Another 'miracle' needed to run the Arlington Million in 2020

Another 'miracle' needed to run the Arlington Million in 2020
Photo: Jon Durr/Eclipse Sportswire

Editor's note: Because of an error in transcribing an interview with Mike Campbell, the original version of this story mischaracterized the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s opposition to staging this year’s Arlington Million. Its position is correctly reflected in this updated version.

There is a saying they have had around Arlington Park going on 35 years this summer. That is how long it has been since a memorably big fire leveled the old grandstand.

“QUIT? HELL NO!”

Those were the words of Richard Duchossois, the now 98-year-old boss emeritus who saw to it that a new, opulent grandstand was literally built on the ashes. He also made sure that 26 days after the fire, the Arlington Million ran on schedule.

It is still known as the Miracle Million, its legacy etched on the walls of the eternally pristine clubhouse with those words next to a huge photo of the old, burned-down grandstand.

“QUIT? HELL NO!”

But those words may have a hollow ring to them this summer, because the Arlington Million, the racing season that was supposed to start May 1 and the very future of Arlington Park are all under threat. And the coronavirus pandemic is only part of the story.

“I believe that they’re going to try to have a second Miracle Million,” said trainer Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “We would oppose that.”

“We’re always looking to turn every stone and fight and work,” Arlington Park president Tony Petrillo said. “That’s kind of what drives us every day.”

The idea of running Arlington Million XXXVIII this summer at the expense of meat-and-potatoes, daily racing begins the divide between Campbell and Petrillo. While the pandemic is a huge hurdle, their complicated differences began long before anyone heard of the coronavirus. They reached an impasse in negotiations during the winter over the terms of the 2020 racing season.

Throw in questions about the longterm commitment to Arlington Park by its owner – Churchill Downs Inc. – and that leaves plenty of people all dressed up with nowhere to work.

“It was already going downhill,” said jockey Mitchell Murrill, 25, who spent most of his young career as one of Arlington’s leading riders. “Now with this pandemic they can’t even open. My opinion is that in their eyes it may not be worth opening.”

Murrill spoke on the phone from Kentucky, where he is committed to riding at Churchill Downs. Campbell was in Florida, where he has been racing horses at Tampa Bay Downs with plans to spend the summer in Virginia at Colonial Downs. Petrillo was at home in suburban Chicago.

All the while the stables at Arlington Park sit unusually and completely vacant. The track is closed in the spring for the first time since 1999.

An about-face from CDI

The bitterness between track management and horsemen was fueled last August, when CEO Bill Carstanjen announced that CDI would not build a casino at Arlington Park. This was despite the passage last summer of the Illinois Sports Wagering Act that allowed racetracks to prop up their sagging revenue with slot machines, something that CDI had loudly advocated for years.

“The economic terms under which Arlington would be granted a casino gaming license do not provide an acceptable financial return,” Carstanjen said. “We cannot responsibly proceed.”

Meanwhile, CDI moved ahead with plans to open a sportsbook at its Rivers Casino eight miles away in Des Plaines, Nearby rival Hawthorne Race Course went the other direction, making plans to add slot machines even though the new law charges racetracks a 20 percent higher tax rate that it does for operators of a free-standing casino. That extra 20 percent is intended to be used as purse money for races.

“We were the only ones in the industry opposing the gaming bill as it was being written, because we were not being treated the same as the casinos,” Petrillo said. “There’s no split at the other casinos with horsemen or any other group.”

So even before last year’s meet was finished, Arlington Park was left with an uncertain fate, especially since Carstanjen said that CDI would not commit to racing there after 2021.

“We feel like we were being used by Churchill Downs to promote sports betting,” Campbell said. “I have nothing good to say about them. They’re going to close this place without a doubt. Is this going to be a one-track town? That’s what’s going to happen. It’s unbelievable.”

‘There’s no purse money’

The Arlington Million became the world’s first $1 million horse race in 1981, and it has been worth at least that much since. But as revenue and handle have eroded, so have the purses of other stakes at Arlington Park, especially in the last four years.

Horsemen see track management and CDI as being greedy with their split of revenue, especially because off-track betting in Illinois was suspended two months ago because of the coronavirus.

“We have this provision in the law called the recapture,” Campbell said. “That allows the track to take from the purse account $4.5 million that’s unique to Illinois. So they earned $4.5 million for themselves and their expenses. We earned $4.5 million for the purse account. They are allowed to take our $4.5 million in advance. Add all that up, and there’s no purse money.”

That recapture goes back to the 1999 law that authorized betting on out-of-state races. Part of it was designed to protect Illinois racetracks if they lost money to the nascent phenomenon of simulcasting. It said that if the live handle dropped below a 1994 threshold, tracks would be guaranteed a recapture – a percentage of the money that would have gone to fill race purses.

As other forms of gambling mushroomed, racing declined and, with it, the handle. So that old law continues to work in favor of the track operators. Petrillo contends that the horsemen should have their beef with the state government and quit leaning on racetracks for purse money.

“Their unreasonable demands of guaranteeing purses or totally cutting out stakes schedules has not changed from the onset,” Petrillo said. “To make this kind of a demand in the midst of this pandemic and the economic conditions seems way, way out of bounds.”

As the debate waded through the fall and winter and spring into the weeds of detail, it only protracted a decline that has been palpable for years at Arlington Park, where Campbell said that “hundreds of horsemen have left in the last 5-10 years.”

Certainly what was once a buzzing backside has seen a steady exodus.

“If they got slots and the purse structure was going to be a definite, I would have considered staying,” Murrill said. “But I needed to step aside and do something different.”

Enter the coronavirus

Although thoroughbred racing has continued behind closed doors in other states, the pandemic led to a mid-March shutdown in Illinois, where only Fairmount Park in Collinsville had been active. (Hawthorne Park had already canceled its winter-spring season because of construction plans for its casino.) So even if Arlington Park and the ITHA had an agreement, they would still be waiting for guidance from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“We are under our shelter-in-place order,” Petrillo said. “The governor was just asked, what is his response to the reopening of horse racing? He said he’s going to leave it up to the experts. We all just shrugged our shoulders. We don’t know what he meant by that.”

But even if Arlington could start racing without fans in the stands, that does not necessarily solve the money problem. All tracks get a big boost from the presence of spectators. It comes from the money spent on food and drink and a higher share of the betting takeout, much more than tracks get from off-track wagering. The split is murkier for Arlington, since CDI also gets a cut from the TwinSpires advanced deposit wagering platorm that it owns.

“Arlington is not inclined to run spectator-free,” Campbell said. “They have become very focused on retail. Because of that, spectator-free racing does not appeal to them.”

Petrillo said it is too soon to even think about going down that road, saying that “that’s an unknown to us” until Pritzker offers some clarity.

What Arlington did not have that other tracks did during the winter was a foot in the door – or a hoof. The argument was made elsewhere that if horses had to get out and exercise every morning, what difference did it make to race them in the afternoon? Arlington could not use that.

“We do not have anybody on our backstretch right now,” Petrillo said. “We differ from Gulfstream and Oaklawn. They already had people there at the time of this pandemic.”

But Campbell believes that the longer the coronavirus keeps people at home, the better it is for Arlington Park management and especially CDI if they do not want to wade into the troubled economics of this season.

“It’s good cover for them,” he said. “You don’t dare say something like that because it’s taken many lives and made many thousands sick. But I think there are winners and losers in every crisis. I would have to categorize Churchill Downs and Arlington Park to be on the winning side relative to the coronavirus’s effect on racing at Arlington Park in 2020.”

What they did this summer

Even if Pritzker were to allow racetracks to open – with or without fans – the impasse with the ITHA still has to be resolved. The Illinois Racing Board has a monthly meeting scheduled for next Friday, presumably via video conference, but neither side expects a resolution by then.

“Every time we get close to an agreement with Arlington, they move the finish line,” Campbell said. “We got to the point of a 45-day meet. We asked them to reduce the stakes schedule, and they agreed to do that for about 48 hours. Their contract reflected none of that.”

“At the end of the day they still want purse guarantees,” Petrillo said, “which is unfathomable.”

Contentious rhetoric aside, there is no money coming in. There is hope that off-track betting may be open next month to provide something substantive over which the two sides may argue. Even then, Campbell estimated that that would mean only $3 million to $4 million in purse money for an ever-shortening meet.

“If you spend $2.5 million on stakes you don’t leave a lot for overnights,” he said. “We would be running by our projections for half of what surrounding states would be running for. That’s $75,000 a day, and I’m being generous.”

At some point the decision would have to be made whether to run the Arlington Million – in name and in purse – at the expense of day-in, day-out racing or whether to scrap it this year. Since the race is penciled in for Aug. 15, how long could track management wait before making a decision about it?

“Well, you draw five days out, right?” Petrillo said.

Counting the days?

There have been plenty of reasons to think that Arlington Park’s days are numbered. So has it run its last race?

“I don’t think so,” Campbell said. “Legislators are not happy that Churchill did (not apply for an Arlington casino license), and nobody appreciates taking advantage of the system. They’re applying for other casino licenses, so I think just for publicity reasons and to put a good face on it, they’ll let it limp along.”

Even Petrillo admitted that the no-casino announcement from Carstanjen “changed the dynamics” last summer.

“But we don’t know the landscape that we’re dealing with right now,” he said. “So many things change from one day to the next. We are going to have to be patient and very thorough.”

Campbell was at Arlington Park to see the new grandstand opened in 1989. “I was actually there a couple years before the rebuild,” he said. Pointing out that offers of as much as $250 million to buy what is attractive suburban real estate have been rejected by track management, he was at a loss to guess what the long term holds for Arlington Park.

Now looking at it as an outsider, Murrill said that it is sad to see what is happening with what many believe is the nicest racing facility in the country.

“In my career I grew up there,” he said. “I’m from Alabama, but Arlington was the first place that I got a shot. Now that I have to step back and watch it fall apart, it’s devastating. To have had all those great moments and milestones there, it’s heartbreaking to see it’s not going to go further.”

But Petrillo, who has been an executive at the track for 27 years, refused to completely give in to pessimism.

“It’s hard to imagine a state of racing without Arlington in some way, shape or form,” he said. “It’s such a jewel to racing that somewhere, somehow, we may not have the crystal ball in front of us, but there will be some type of future for Arlington.”

And he repeated the Duchossois mantra.

“QUIT? HELL NO!”

Ron Flatter has covered horse racing around the world for more than 30 years. Currently based in Nevada and working for the Vegas Stats & Information Network, he is host of the weekly Ron Flatter Racing Pod and on Twitter @ronflatter.

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