09/26/2017 5:01PM

Illinois Racing Board awards 2018 racing dates

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CHICAGO – Presenting a unified if relatively gloomy front, the remaining racetrack operators in Illinois were awarded 2018 racing dates by the Illinois Racing Board at a meeting Tuesday at the downtown James R. Thompson Center.

For most of their history, these dates-awards meetings have been combative, messy, and drawn-out all-day affairs. This one clocked in at less than 90 minutes. No one was arguing anything Tuesday, and the 2018 Illinois racing schedule will look much like the 2017 Illinois racing schedule.

Arlington was awarded the same 71-day May -September meet it ran this year. Hawthorne races 55 days, down from 59 this year because the spring meet won’t start until March 30 in 2018. Hawthorne ran two-day race weeks in March this year, but from Jan. 5 through Feb. 19 next year the track, under the banner of Suburban Downs, will host a winter Standardbred meeting. Hawthorne had such a meeting in 2016 but abandoned it this year, and because of that Illinois harness dates in 2018 are increasing to 112 from 80.

Suburban Downs is the only harness venue left in Illinois following the closing of Maywood Park and Balmoral Park in 2015.\

Hawthorne said it would keep two barns with a total of 237 stalls open all winter for local Thoroughbred horsemen that want to stable at the track even during the period they cannot train because the racing surface is formulated for Standardbreds.

Hawthorne’s first day of 2018 Thoroughbred racing is March 30. The circuit moves to Arlington barely a month later, with Arlington running three-day weeks early and late in their meet and four days in July and August. Arlington’s last racing day is Sept. 29, with Hawthorne starting its fall-winter Thoroughbred meeting Oct. 2.

Downstate, Fairmount Park was granted a 41-day meeting, the same as 2017, but was given permission to vacate dates during the season, with the consent of the IRB’s executive director, if the track lacks the financial wherewithal to complete the scheduled season. Fairmount’s purses have been cropped so low there is little left to cut, yet its purse account is overpaid by about $1.8 million.

Arlington and Hawthorne have the same number of dark-host dates in 2018, 215 and 150, respectively, as this year. The dark host collects purse money from local simulcast wagers on out-of-state races during dark days in Chicago. Dark-host days were a major point of contention between Arlington and Hawthorne until the end of Maywood and Balmoral, but since Hawthorne has started hosting harness racing, they have been willing to cede dark-host time to Arlington.

There was not even any enmity Tuesday between Arlington and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, two entities that have spent much of the last several years skirmishing if not open warring. In fact, Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo said near the start of the meeting that his track and the ITHA already had in place a two-year agreement covering the 2018 and 2019 race meets.

No Illinois track, though, seems confident that there absolutely will be a racing industry here even beyond next year. Surrounded by states where racetracks generate purse money in attached casinos, Illinois venues have staggered along paying purses strictly derived from handle, and for now, with no expanded gambling bill expected anytime soon from Illinois state government, nothing more than marginal improvement can be expected. Racing dates, purses, and revenues have been in steady decline for decades and have crashed the last seven years or so. The word “survival” came up several times Tuesday.

Racing “is going down, and it’s going down quicker than we thought,” Hawthorne president Tim Carey said at one point.

Petrillo, Carey, and Fairmount general manager Brian Zander all went before the board together during the track-presentation portion of the awards meeting – one big family united in unhappy times.