05/02/2012 4:21PM

Arlington: Illinois fans may be barred from betting Kentucky Derby


Arlington Park and the state’s horsemen remained at loggerheads on Wednesday afternoon over a contract governing the upcoming meet that is scheduled to open on Friday, a dispute that is threatening the in-state simulcast of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks and Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

Officials of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and Arlington were meeting late on Wednesday over a new contract proposal that was being offered by the horsemen, according to the ITHA’s executive director, Glenn Berman, but the two sides had not emerged from the negotiations by 3 p.m. Central.

If the issue is not settled by early on Saturday, it is unlikely that bettors in Illinois will be able to bet on the Kentucky Derby. Late last week, the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association withdrew its approval for Churchill Downs to send its races to Illinois, citing the lack of a purse agreement.

“The board of the KHBPA has always felt that when we send our signal out that a portion of that revenue needs to be flowing to horsemen’s purses,” said Marty Maline, the organization’s executive director.

Among other issues, the dispute revolves around the distribution of a 2011 windfall from a casino-revenue fund. Arlington is required to distribute approximately $26 million from the fund, and the sides disagree over the period of time in which the funds should be added to purses.

Even with an unofficial boycott of the entry box, Arlington re-opened entries for the Friday card on Wednesday morning. Fifty-two horses were entered in the nine races; one race for maidens drew three horses, and another maiden race drew four horses.

On Tuesday, Arlington announced that it would cut purses by 20 percent because of the lack of an agreement, in a ploy designed to put pressure on the horsemen’s group to settle. Similar disputes between track and horsemen are often settled within 24 hours of opening day.

Dispute tempers optimism for good start

The real shame of the opening-day fiasco is that Arlington was poised to start its 2012 season in strong fashion. The boost to purses from the casino impact-fee funds had average daily purses, excluding stakes, starting at about $250,000. That would have been a 20 percent increase compared with the end of the 2011 meet, and was about $75,000 more than Arlington was paying out in daily overnights at the beginning of last season.

The increased purses might have had a greater effect on the stable population but for the fact that New York’s purses are astronomical this year. Quite a few traditional Kentucky stables are running early-summer New York strings for the first time this year. That opened up more stable space at Churchill for horsemen who might otherwise have given Arlington a look, given the improved purse structure. The only new trainer of note for 2012 is Wesley Ward, who has 46 stalls. Tom Proctor, who sent horses to Arlington only later last season, has 25 stalls to start this year, while Eric Reed has 20 stalls. Roger Brueggemann, who is training more than 100 horses for Midwest Thoroughbreds at Hawthorne this summer, should be a major player at the meet, and Wayne Catalano will have his regular full barn of horses. Mike Stidham leaned more toward Delaware Park than Arlington last summer, but won’t have a Delaware string this year.

While the purses are up in general, low-level races are paying less at the start of 2012 than at the end of 2011, and Arlington hopes to focus on using more higher-quality races this meet. That a fourth-level allowance also open to $100,000 claimers was used on opening day is meaningless since Arlington let any race with more than a couple of entrants onto the card. Regardless, racing secretary Chris Polzin hopes to make such races a regular part of the program.

Polzin also had high hopes for an improved 2012 season given the increased national betting on Hawthorne’s spring meet that ended April 29. Out-of-state wagering on Hawthorne races increased 33 percent compared with 2011, meaning more bettors were tuning in to Chicago than a year ago.

Now, they are paying attention for all the wrong reasons.

– additional reporting by Marcus Hersh