07/05/2002 12:00AM

Shortfall in purses poses serious threat in Illinois


CHICAGO - The recently announced purse cuts at Arlington Park are only a temporary salve to what could evolve into a serious problem for Illinois racing.

Arlington last week reached an agreement with horsemen to drop average daily purses by $20,000 during Arlington's Summer Festival and not to raise overnight purses just before the Breeders' Cup, which will be run at Arlington on Oct. 26. The reductions became necessary after the Illinois legislature decided in early June to cut off a major source of revenue to the state's racetracks known as recapture. Recapture would have provided about 16 percent of purses at Illinois Thorougbred and harness tracks this year.

Recapture, which began in 1995 to compensate purse funds reduced by the advent of full-card simulcasting, still exists as law, but its funding was eliminated in the face of a budget crisis this spring.

"It caught us totally off guard," said Steve Sexton, Arlington's chief executive officer.

Chicago's three racetracks already had figured recapture money into their purse structures. Arlington was to get $3.7 million in purse money from recapture this year, and its recent agreement with horsemen trimmed only $1 million. While Arlington still can make adjustments, Sportsman's Park already has run its 2002 meet.

"We have no way to recoup that money at this point," said Charles Bidwill III, Sportsman's chairman.

Arlington officials and local horseman have talked about the remaining $2.7 million shortfall in purse money and will meet again soon. There's no agreement, but horsemen and racing officials seem inclined to wait out the current crisis.

The Illinois legislature meets again in November, and there is a chance that the recapture appropriation could be reinstated. "I'll be down in Springfield in November on my hands and knees," Bidwill said.

But Arlington isn't counting on a quick reversal. "We're not optimistic about that," said Sexton, who added that a better budget situation might make a difference next year. "I think this is just an exception to the support the state has given."

"We've talked about deferring this year's balance to 2003-2004," Sexton said. "That would soften the blow over multiple years."

Racetracks and horsemen hope purses eventually will receive a boost from Illinois's 10th riverboat casino, which has been unable to open because of a dispute over licensing. The casino would contribute about 15 percent of its gross receipts to the racing industry.

But with the recapture appropriation suddenly struck down and continued uncertainty about the casino, Illinois racing could face some harsh realities about its purses.

"I don't want to sound doom and gloom, but obviously we're going to have to sit down with horsemen and talk about some things," Bidwill said. "We're not going to put on some kind of low purse meet next year."