12/02/2011 4:36PM

Illinois puts off decision on account-wagering licenses

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The Illinois Racing Board on Thursday deferred the approval of 2012 licenses for account-wagering companies operating in the state after hearing testimony from representatives of the Jockeys’ Guild about the decision by Churchill Downs Inc. to let an agreement providing payments to the Guild to expire.

The decision by the board to defer the approvals until its Dec. 20 meeting raises the stakes for Churchill Downs in its dispute with the Guild. Churchill Downs owns and operates the largest account-wagering company in the United States, Twinspires.com, and the Illinois deferral is the second by a racing board in a month, following an identical decision in November by the California Horse Racing Board to defer approvals of account-wagering licenses until its Dec. 15 meeting.

Jeff Johnston, a former rider and the Midwest regional representative for the guild, provided testimony at the meeting about the decision by Churchill, which notified the guild in July that it did not intend to renew the agreement when it expires at the end of this year. The agreement provided approximately $330,000 to the guild each year from Churchill’s four tracks, including Chicago’s Arlington Park.

Marc Laino, the board’s executive director, said that the deferral will give the board “time to consider the legal implications of the licenses” while simultaneously “giving [Churchill and the guild] some time to negotiate over the issue.”

Laino said that the board’s legal counsel plans to examine closely whether the board can legally insert itself into the dispute by tying an operating license to the guild payments in light of a 1972 Illinois Supreme Court decision that ruled that the board cannot set riders’ fees because jockeys are independent contractors.

“That’s going to be the biggest question we’re going to have to address,” Laino said. He added that board members were also curious as to what action the California racing board will take at its Dec. 15 meeting.

Since being notified by Churchill about the status of the agreement, the guild has mounted an aggressive public-relations effort to draw sympathy to its cause. Among those efforts, the guild in November sent a letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and every legislator in the state asking lawmakers to consider earmarking funds from any bill expanding casino gambling to jockeys’ health and welfare.

In a letter sent to the California racing board on Thursday that was obtained by Daily Racing Form , Churchill’s general counsel Alan Tse said that Churchill does not believe the company has the responsibility to pay for health care for riders, citing jockeys’ status as independent contractors. The letter, which says that Churchill pays $1 million annually to purchase accident insurance at its tracks and fund safety initiatives, also states that the guild has publicly slandered the company during its public-relations efforts, a strategy that “exposes them to serious damage claims” by Churchill.