Contract dispute could disrupt Arlington Park opening day

Jockey Inez Karlsson, left, is led to the track before the start of the fourth race prior to the 28th running of the Arlington Million horse race at the Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill., on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010. Karlsson won the race riding to victory on top of Exchanging Kisses. (AP Photo/John Smierciak)

May 2, 2012 2:46:14 PM PDT
Arlington Park's thoroughbred racing season is scheduled to open this Friday. But a contract dispute is threatening to disrupt racing this weekend.

The dispute involves the track owners and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

The main issue in the dispute involves the use of the simulcast of Arlington races by other tracks and off-track betting facilities. The ITHA and Arlington Park haven't reached an agreement on their contract for this year.

The main difference people coming to the races on Friday will notice is fewer horses out on the track. Only three of the races for that day are full. But for those coming on Saturday, unless there is a resolution, there is a real possibility people won't be able to wager on the Kentucky Derby.

"We continue to negotiate in good faith. It's going to be resolved. These things have a way of working themselves out," said Arlington Park spokesperson Howard Sudberry.

The main sticking point seems to be over who should control the simulcast signals to other states.

"Horsemen in every state have a federally protected right to control the export of their signal, meaning the transmission of their video to other locations around the country. And that right allows them so say no to any specific location," said ITHA's Glen Berman.

Right now, in a show of solidarity, the Kentucky horsemen's association has said no to Illinois. With the Kentucky Derby set for Saturday, that would mean people at Illinois off-track betting sites won't be able to bet on races at Churchill Downs. That's a lot of money lost, and so, Arlington Park has told owners that as of now purse money will be reduced by 20 percent.

The ITHA isn't happy.

"We received $26 million to purse account," said Berman. "So there is plenty of money in purse account to pay purses at the level that Arlington has advertised for this season."

The popularity of horse racing has declined significantly. Attendance nationwide is down 30 percent over the last 10 years, and wagering both on and off the track is down to just over $10 billion a year. That is the lowest it has been since 1995.

The current dispute reflects the fight over declining revenues, but shouldn't affect the enjoyment of those who will be at Arlington on opening day.

"I don't think it changes everything else, the enjoyment of being there, the excitement of being at the races, and all the other positive aspects of racing that make it such a great sport," said Sudberry.

Both sides were meeting again Wednesday afternoon and both seemed optimistic that they have some form of a contract by this weekend.