09/21/2004 11:00PM

Arlington loser at dates meeting

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CHICAGO - A bitterly divided Illinois Racing Board voted at its annual dates meeting Tuesday to maintain Chicago's current Thoroughbred schedule, but dealt a surprising blow to Arlington Park, taking away its host-track status during a significant part of the winter.

Chicago's 2005 racing calendar will look much like this year's: National Jockey Club at Hawthorne races from Feb. 25 through May 10; Arlington from May 13 through Sept. 18; and Hawthorne from Sept. 23 to Dec. 31. Downstate Fairmount Park was awarded 142 live racing days, March 25 to Nov. 26.

But the major battles in a marathon nine-hour meeting Tuesday came from rifts within the 11-member, state-appointed board and disagreements over lucrative midwinter simulcasting days.

The so-called host track during Chicago Thoroughbred racing's dark period in most of January and February derives revenue from simulcast handle throughout the state. Simulcast betting during the period can earn a track around $100,000 a day in commissions. Arlington was awarded host-track status for all the dark days in January and February this year, but will lose 17 days in 2005. Arlington was awarded 164 host days, down from 181 in 2004 and 172 in 2003. National Jockey Club has 87 host days, and Hawthorne Race Course 114 host days.

According to IRB staff calculations, the change will cost Arlington about $1.4 million in commissions, and will drain $2.4 million from its 2005 purse account.

"How can you take away $25,000 a day in purses and give it to those other tracks?" asked Arlington's chairman, Dick Duchossois, after the meeting. "We have the best racing facility in the world."

The decision came in a 6-5 vote by the commissioners, and followed the defeat of an initial dates proposal put forth by IRB chairman Lorna Propes. Propes proposed maintaining Arlington's host-track status during the January-February dark period, while offering the loosely merged entities of Hawthorne Race Course and National Jockey Club - which has raced at Hawthorne since the shuttering of its original home at Sportsman's Park - racing days in February that didn't exist in 2004.

Propes tossed that bone to the Hawthorne-NJC consortium to make up for a loss of some $450,000 this year due to the shifted 2004 host-track status in Arlington's favor. But commissioner John Simon, a longtime board member, was determined to drive a wedge in Propes's proposal. With help from former chairman Ralph Gonzalez, Simon hammered Arlington for failing to significantly raise purses during its 2004 meet. Simon contended that with the host-track money from this past winter, Arlington should have shown purse gains, but they failed to materialize.

Simon came up with a counterproposal, which ultimately was passed. The opposition claimed that Simon's counterproposal penalized Arlington far beyond what the track's failure to raise purses should have merited.

Propes, during a heated discussion period following her plan's defeat, called Simon's counterproposal "an outrage."

Propes also contended that an outsider coming into the meeting to find the IRB taking purse money away from its premier track would "think we were out of our minds."

That was a sentiment shared by other members of the board, including past chairman Dennis Bookshester, who spoke vehemently on Arlington's behalf, and stormed from the room immediately after the session.

There are three new board members, and all voted with Propes. Simon's proposal had the backing of five other established board members.

There were persistent claims that the 2005 awards were colored by a conflict within the board as much as by the realities on the ground.

"It wasn't a matter of what was right and wrong," said Duchossois. "It was a matter of personalities."

Indeed, Arlington concluded its 2004 race meet on Sunday with gains in total and ontrack handle and attendance. The positive trends flew in the face of industry-wide growth patterns, and came after a slow start to the meet in early summer.

The IRB also announced a new Chicago 2005 harness racing plan. The so-called "blended" schedule will feature simultaneous summer racing at three different venues, with Suburban Downs at Hawthorne running four nights weekly, Balmoral Park twice weekly, and Maywood Park once a week. Balmoral and Maywood split the remainder of the harness season.