A long, contentious meeting took place Tuesday in the Thompson Center in the Chicago Loop, with the annual Dates Hearing at the main office of the Illinois Racing Board (IRB).
Prior to the meeting, two original but differing proposals were submitted. Hawthorne wanted the Spring meet to end in early May, to include the Kentucky Derby with Arlington's opening weekend pushed (as it was until 2006) to Mother's Day weekend. Arlington wanted to start their meet in May but wanted to incorporate a small break between the two meets.
And thus for next year, 2013, live racing dates will fall along the usual Hawthorne Spring-Arlington-Hawthorne Fall lines. Hawthorne's Spring Meet will start in mid-February and run until the end of April. Arlington will run five months from early May to late September. The final three months of the year; October, November, and December, are Hawthorne Fall. The 2013 dates passed by a 6-2 vote. One member was absent, two others do not start their terms until the first of October.
Yet the dates were not only point of contention. One of them was the Grade 3 Illinois Derby, the region's feeder race to the Kentucky Derby. Recall that in June, Churchill Downs (whose parent is Churchill Downs Incorporated, the parent owner of Arlington Park) announced a new points-based qualification system for the Kentucky Derby. One three-year-old race conspicuously absent from the spring qualifiers was the Illinois Derby. At the meeting, Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery mentioned the reasons for the Illinois Derby's absence.
"The Illinois Derby simply didn't measure up to all the different criteria. We looked over the last 11 years," he elaborated. "How did the horses who were in the Illinois Derby do in the Kentucky Derby? Their average finish was the lowest (compared to the qualifying tracks) in the last leg and the second worst in the next leg down." --Churchill president Kevin Flanery to The Chicago Tribune
Flanery also mentioned how two-year-old races were weighted lower in the system. Flanery's argument included the exclusion of the Bashford Manor Stakes, a two-year-old race in early summer during Churchill's Spring/Summer meet. Aside from Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay and Tampa Bay Derby winner Limehouse, the race has produced little in the way of quality Kentucky Derby contenders in recent years.
After the meeting, Hawthorne President Tim Carey told The Chicago Tribune regarding the Illinois Derby, "We simply must increase the purse, make it at least a $750,000 purse. We'd love to make it a $1 million race with a bonus to go to the winner of the Illinois Derby who goes on to win any Triple Crown race."
A related point of contention was "dark date" money. Both Hawthorne and Arlington generate revenue on dark dates in the first six weeks of the year when neither track is conducting live racing but still in operation for handling off-track simulcast wagers. Typically, these dark dates have seen any revenue from them shuttled to Arlington. That money will be divided more evenly, with a 26-19 split in favor of Arlington. According to M. Hersh of Daily Racing Form, one wintry day generates about $50,000 in purse money and about $27,000 in track commissions. The $77,000 per day means that approximately $1.23M is projected to be shifted from Arlington to Hawthorne, also according to Daily Racing Form estimates, for those dark days.
Also during the meeting, according to Daily Racing Form, Arlington called upon an expert witness to testify on the accounting of Hawthorne, questioning the track's solvency. Hawthorne retorted that its finances are in better-than-bad shape, namely due to documentation presented in the meeting regarding its credit lines.
But who were the winners and losers?
At first blush, the public reaction is to cheer for Hawthorne scoring the dark date revenue during the winter. While the shift in dark date money could easily pay for the Illinois Derby purse hike that Carey alluded to, the Illinois Derby remains for now at a $500,000 purse and for now Grade 3 status.
Along with supporters of the Illinois Derby, Illinois Horsemen walked away disappointed from the meeting as well. They were unhappy at the dark time in Spring and also at the six week absence from January 1 to mid-February.
"This [the six week break] is a time when our horsemen have no revenue opportunities," he said. "But they still have feed bills, vet bills, they have to pay their staff. Many of our members will have no choice but to take their horses out of state."
--Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horseman's Association (ITHA) to Blood-Horse.
Arlington Park management offered no comment.
IRB member Allan Monat said to The Chicago Tribune in addressing the exclusion of the Illinois Derby. "We are here to promote Illinois racing. The Illinois Racing Board has to do everything in its power to keep this race."
But with the race zombified, that makes fans of Illinois Racing losers. Guess now we have to handicap for zombies in early April.