By Michael Campbell — The Thoroughbred racing community watched in dismay when Churchill Downs sold California’s Hollywood Park to a real estate company that jettisoned live racing and then endeavored, at Calder Race Course in Florida, to replace live racing with jai alai. Now at Arlington Park near Chicago, we’re seeing Churchill again working to squelch live racing by rebuffing a proposal to turn Arlington into a racino.
That is the same racino plan that was put forward at the Illinois Capitol, year after year for more than a decade, by Arlington’s own lobbyists as a means to generate funds to boost purses and expand live racing opportunities.
But when our state’s elected officials this year at last approved the gaming expansion law necessary for Arlington to become a racino, Churchill decided it wouldn’t even apply for the racino license.
What changed? Churchill last year acquired the majority stake in the suburban Rivers Casino, the top grossing casino in Illinois and just a 12-mile drive from Arlington.
When it came time to finally build its Arlington racino, Churchill opted instead to minimize the competition facing Rivers. So long as Churchill owns Arlington, there will be no racino at that track.
There was a time when Churchill showed a genuine interest in advancing the sport and industry of horse racing. These days, the company’s actions suggest its only objective is profit – and that any resulting support for horse racing is merely incidental. Beyond Kentucky, the Churchill Downs of a generation ago is gone.
If Churchill refuses to act responsibly, the Illinois Gaming Board – which is drafting rules to regulate sports betting in this state and will soon vote on requests for sports betting licenses – has the power to hold Churchill accountable.
Our association urged the Gaming Board to deny Churchill’s request for a sports betting license linked to Arlington. Sports betting might help pad the profits of Churchill but, under the new Illinois gaming law, will not add a dime to purses.
That law wasn’t intended for Churchill to exploit its relationship with an Illinois track while doing precisely nothing to benefit live racing.
We also urged the Gaming Board to deny Churchill’s request for a sports betting license linked to Rivers or any other gaming property in Illinois until such time that Churchill has divested itself of Arlington, to a qualified entity that will operate the facility as a racino, as a demonstration of the board’s commitment to promoting fairness, honesty and integrity, and competition across the state’s gaming landscape.
Churchill betrayed the Illinois horse racing industry and is undeserving of the privileges intended for a track operator with a sincere commitment to live racing.
Lack of Honesty and Integrity
Over the last year in Illinois, representatives of Churchill’s Arlington repeatedly failed to act in good faith. When tracks and horsemen met in May to negotiate the final language of the gaming bill as it pertained to horse racing, Arlington officials refused to participate in that conversation.
Instead, Arlington agents tried to manipulate the gaming bill with language hostile to horsemen. Those provisions, ostensibly geared to strengthen supports for backstretch workers, were in fact designed to suppress the ability of horsemen’s associations to advocate effectively on behalf of our own membership by restraining our ability to allocate our own resources as we determine to be necessary.
Lawmakers declined to advance the language that Arlington covertly positioned in the bill; the final version of the legislation rejected that proposal and respected the agreement reached by the other tracks and horsemen.
Now, even as Churchill acts to suppress the growth of live racing, its control of Arlington appears to create a distinct advantage for Churchill, in the sports betting arena, over other casino gaming operations seeking to engage in sports betting.
Each casino under the new gaming law may be entitled to use their single location to operate sports betting and also register individuals who wish to engage in sports betting via mobile.
But Arlington and the state’s other tracks may be permitted to engage in these activities at up to four locations including the racetrack and three inter-track wagering locations. Churchill therefore could have four destinations in addition to Rivers – again, with no benefit for purses.
Churchill also is poised to keep taking money from the horsemen’s purse account under the state’s antiquated “recapture” system. Recapture is abolished, under the new gaming law, but only after a track becomes a racino.
With no racino at Arlington, Churchill could keep taking that subsidy – undermining purses and economic opportunity for those of us working in the racing industry – indefinitely. In 2019 alone, Arlington is taking $4.47 million.
Surely, the Illinois legislature did not intend for one out-of-state corporation to effectively stifle the intended growth of the racing industry, as a means to reduce the competition facing its own casino, while at the same time exploiting state law to dramatically expand its sports betting footprint and continuing to undermine purses through a practice that lawmakers, acting on the assumption that Churchill would develop a racino at Arlington, moved to abolish.
Arlington is a Thoroughbred racing gem that is treasured by the racing community worldwide. Yet if Churchill has its way, it will meet the same fate as Calder and Hollywood Park.
Having already discarded the Illinois Derby by delinking that race from the Kentucky Derby point system, Churchill now threatens to all but eradicate live racing in Illinois – at precisely the time that state lawmakers and Gov. J.B. Pritzker have moved to stimulate live racing, protect and create jobs, and support the best interests of taxpayers. We as an industry cannot stand for this.
Michael Campbell is president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.