09/23/2009 11:00PM

Little change in dates for Illinois's major tracks


CHICAGO - Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course typically spend dates awards meetings squabbling, but in Thursday's meeting to award 2010 racing dates, representatives of the two tracks came before the Illinois Racing Board as one to outline a previously agreed upon schedule that will run through the 2011 season. The Board quickly voted 10-0 to approve the proposed 2010 schedule, but troubled downstate Fairmount Park faces the possibility of a vastly curtailed racing season next year.

There are no major changes from the 2009 racing calendar. Hawthorne will race the first couple days of January, then go dark before commencing a spring meeting that runs Feb. 12 through April 27. Action returns to Arlington between April 28 and Sept. 28, with Hawthorne back on line from Sept. 20 through the end of the year.

The Hawthorne spring meet starts about two weeks earlier in 2010 than it did this year.

Hawthorne hopes to minimize the number of horses leaving town during the winter dark period with the earlier start, while members of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association that remain in Chicago for the winter prefer as little dark time as possible.

Hawthorne also has changed its spring racing days. A three-day-per-week schedule in February consists of Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. In March, Tuesdays will be added, and during April, a five-day week will include Sundays. Mondays and Thursdays are dark all spring.

Arlington switched from four-day weeks to five in July this year, but then saw field size and momentum decline. The 2010 Arlington season sticks to four-day weeks, with racing Thursday through Sunday. The horsemen requested five-day mid-summer weeks be reconsidered if the state's racing industry receives any significant financial windfall before Arlington's 2010 season.

The meeting began with IRB chairman Joe Sinopoli reiterating the board's dire financial situation. Because of changes in funding mechanisms and declines in handle, the IRB would face a $1.4 million budget deficit in 2010 if 2009 conditions were reproduced. Sinopoli cited several areas in which money once marked for the IRB had been shifted to track operators in recent years.

"We're broke. You've bled us dry," Sinopoli told the assembled group.

The IRB took another serious hit when the labor union to which its Fairmount employees belong was awarded a generous arbitration settlement earlier this year. Fairmount also pays a lower tax to help fund the IRB than the state's other racetracks, and both situations must be corrected if Fairmount is to conduct a proper 2010 meet. If the Illinois legislature doesn't increase Fairmount's so-called privilege tax rate from .25 percent to .75 percent by Jan. 1, and if the IRB and the Fairmount field staff don't reach an acceptable work agreement by Feb. 5, Fairmount will race only three days during all of 2010. If the two conditions are met, Fairmount will run a 52-date, three-day-a-week meet from April 27 to Aug. 24.

Through layoffs, fewer 2010 race dates, and a resolution of the Fairmount field staff problem, the IRB should be able to reduce its 2010 deficit to about $100,000, executive director Marc Laino said.

But the whole Illinois racing industry still is waiting for financial aid. Casino-impact-fee legislation, which already has generated close to $100 million intended for racing, remains tied up in court, with no end in sight. Former Illinois Rep. Bob Molaro, who now lobbies for Hawthorne, told the board he had hopes that racing would be included in any statewide gaming expansion in 2010. But that is the same tale people in the industry have been telling the last several years.