03/28/2013 1:27PM

Arlington's disagreement with horsemen escalates

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Arlington Park is seeking to reach a horsemen’s agreement for its upcoming 2013 meet with an organization representing owners and breeders instead of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Illinois racing officials said Thursday.

The move seeks to undercut the horsemen’s association at a time when relations between Arlington and the horsemen’s group have been strained by disagreements over Arlington’s policies and lingering ill will over a contract dispute in 2012. The horsemen’s association or its predecessor, the Illinois Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, has represented horsemen in contract negotiations with Arlington for decades.

Although Arlington officials would not confirm that they intended to supplant the horsemen’s association by negotiating with the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation, the track’s general manager, Tony Petrillo, acknowledged that Arlington has held talks with the group that would allow the foundation to receive $800,000 in funds that were previously assigned to the horsemen’s association for administrative costs. Under the proposal, the breeders and owners foundation could use $200,000 of the total for administrative funds, with the rest distributed to owners and breeders as awards for winning races, Petrillo said.

Breeders and owners foundation officials did not respond to phone calls.

Federal law gives the horsemen’s organization “representing the majority of owners and trainers” at a track the authority to negotiate contracts with tracks and the ability to approve or deny a track’s simulcast contracts.

Glen Berman, executive director of the horsemen’s association, said that any agreement that Arlington reached with the breeders and owners foundation to represent horsemen would be “meaningless.”

“They perform a very important function, and we work with them to protect their interests,” Berman said. “But the breeders’ organization is the breeders’ organization. To me, [a deal with Arlington] would be a void agreement.”

Marc Laino, executive director of the Illinois Racing Board, said Thursday that the board was aware that Arlington was seeking to reach the agreement with the breeders and owners foundation. If the two sides do reach an agreement, the board will not accept that the breeders and owners foundation fits the definition of the group representing the majority of horsemen without a review, Laino said, leading to the possibility that the board could nullify the deal.

“This is an issue that has gone unchallenged for 20 or 30 years here,” Laino said. “This is really unprecedented.”

The racing board also is currently evaluating mediators that may intervene in the negotiations between Arlington and the horsemen if an agreement for the 2013 meet is not reached by April 3, Laino said. As a condition of the board’s approval of Arlington’s dates earlier this year, the board attached a provision that allowed it to appoint a mediator in the negotiations if a deal was not reached within 30 days of the meet’s scheduled start, in a move to avoid a similar situation to last year, when the two sides did not reach an agreement until the day the Arlington meet started.

At the heart of the dispute is concern over Arlington’s intention to boost field sizes by implementing policies that some horsemen contend would result in the payment of “stall rent” if trainers do not make enough starts with horses stabled at the track. The term “stall rent” has itself become a matter of dispute, with both sides posting differing explanations of how the policy would affect trainers on their websites.
Petrillo said Thursday that Arlington has dropped any discussion of implementing charges that would penalize trainers for not starting horses at the 2013 meet. He said that the issue was dropped after Arlington began considering the myriad ways in which a trainer might not be able to meet a goal of making a specific number of starts due to injuries or sicknesses in a barn.

“There are so many circumstances that can occur,” Petrillo said. “We don’t have an answer for that right now.”

However, Berman and Mike Campbell, president of the horsemen’s association, said that they are not taking Arlington at their word about the stall rent policy, pointing to the current stall application, which includes language giving the track the right to charge stall rent.

“They say they don’t really mean that a stall rent fee will be applied, but then they refuse to strike the language,” Berman said. “If they don’t mean what they say, then strike it. But they won’t.”

A notice Arlington posted on its website also states that the track intends to impose stall rent beginning in 2014.