A New Year's deadline to finalize a new contract between Arlington International Racecourse and horse owners and trainers has come and gone, with the two sides at an impasse over purse levels for the upcoming season.
While it's not the first time negotiations have lingered, underlying talks this time is track owner Churchill Downs' refusal to pursue casino games as a way to supplement declining purse revenues at the Arlington Heights racetrack.
Both Arlington and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association lobbied state legislators for more than a decade to get slots and table games at the track. But after landmark state gambling expansion legislation passed in June, Churchill announced in August it wouldn't seek permission to install the casino-style games, arguing the new law would make it hard to gain an acceptable financial return.
The association that represents some 2,500 thoroughbred horse owners and trainers who work at Arlington have continued to blast that position. Their most recent criticism came in a lengthy statement released Thursday that accuses Churchill of deceiving state elected officials and the racing industry.
The horsemen argue Churchill sought their support to help win approval of the gambling expansion bill, helping to boost profits at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines -- of which the company acquired a majority stake last March -- all while abandoning a yearslong plan to develop a so-called racino at Arlington.
Now the Louisville, Kentucky-based company is "threatening the future of live racing at Arlington by refusing to commit to a contract" with higher purses, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association statement says.
A Churchill spokesman declined to comment Thursday on the association's statement or the status of contract negotiations.
Churchill has offered an average of $130,000 in daily purse money for the 68 scheduled live racing dates starting in May, the association said.
That compares to about $174,000 per day in Minnesota and $180,000 per day in Indiana.
The horsemen are asking Churchill for at least $200,000 per day, which they believe will help attract quality stables to the track and help Illinois' horse racing industry be more competitive with nearby states'.
While contract negotiations between horsemen and Arlington extended to the weekend before the 2016 racing season, a provision of the new gambling law calls for a contract to be signed before the start of the calendar year.
The 2020 racing season at Arlington is scheduled to begin May 1.