In keeping with my belief that it is best to see things with your own eyes and hear them with your own ears, the same belief that motivated me to attend the big conference in Tucson last December, I decided to take part of the day and hop the train downtown to attend the Illinois Racing Board dates hearing for the 2000 racing dates.
On the trip down I noted that the Cubs already took down the big "L" flag from the game last night (a flag they might as well make permanent, IMHO), that there's a new skyscraper going up in big Chicago up in the neighborhood of the Hancock building, and that there's a real good breakfast to be had in the restaurant at the corner of the State of Illinois building on LaSalle. This latter was discovered after just a small getting lost incident, as I had the address right but the wrong building in my previous post.
Room C-500 proved to be a good sized auditorium type room on the 5th floor, and after everyone dragged on in, late of course, the cast of players was as follows:
On the dais (at a table with nice white tablecloth), the Illinois Racing Board and some lackeys. From my left to right:
- Commissioner Mr. Jackson, who said nothing all meeting long except for one question, so I couldn't judge him at all.
- Commissioner Mr. Kane, who spoke up quite often and had lots of questions, and seemed quite knowledgeable, and serious about the work at hand.
- Commissioner Ms. Propes, who I'm not so sure about. She's been on the board a long time, but geez, one of the questions she asked - I knew the answer to that and everyone knows I don't know anything.
- Chairman Mr. Lamb, who kept things moving right along and seemed to have a very good grasp of all details and issues.
- Commissioner Mr. Gonzalez, whose primary concern throughout the day seemed to be whether or not the tracks were making improvements they'd been told to make, and making veiled threats that their dates were contingent on them actually making the improvements.
- Commissioner Mr. Simon, also very outspoken and seemingly very knowledgable.
Commissioner Ms. O'Fallon (? - sorry my eyes aren't what they used to be), who said not one word throughout the entire proceedings except to answer roll call and finally vote.
Commissioner Mr. Peck, a guy who reminded me of that retired admiral who was the VP candidate with Ross Perot, and who didn't have much to say except when the harness dates were discussed, at which time he was quite antagonistic towards Hawthorne's request and I wrote him down right away as someone who is in Maywood/Balmoral's back pocket.
In the audience:
Everyone under the sun involved in Illinois racing, generally trailing a band of favorites, plus a lot of media types esp. up by where I was, including Marty McGee from the DRF who makes a better door than a window. Lots of photographers clicking and taping away, generally focusing on the Arlington contingent. And a whole bunch of other people who I didn't know who they were. The joint was pretty full.
After dispensing with the Racetrack Improvement Fund business in like 36 seconds, the dates presentations got under way, with the thoroughbred applicants first, in alphabetical order.
Scott Mordell from AP went first, unaccompanied to the podium by Mr. D who just sat, and I was surprised to discover that at these things they swear the presenters in, promising to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Since it is my experience that whenever most of these guys have their mouths open they are generally lying about something, this ceremony hit my funny bone. But Scott swore.
And then proceeded to say nothing, just a bunch of platitudes about the bright future of racing in Illinois and blah blah blah. One of the commissioners asked Scott what they have done to attract new horses and stables to Illinois, and Scott said they've been "keeping in touch". Everyone was much the wiser.
Brian Zander fro FP then presented, stating FP's wish for a winter meet of 1/29-3/14 of 3 days a week, 4 days a week after that till Labor Day, then 4 weeks off, then another 3 day a week meet Oct-Dec. He presented his reasons for this based on historical betting patterns and wishing to avoid conflicts with the football season and the St. Louis Cardinals. Commissioner Gozalez spoke up at this point and asked Brian about some long-standing orders to fix things, and Brian said the new schedule would give them some down time to do them. Chairman Lamb at this point assured the So. Ill. harness horsemen' if any were present, that the IRB had not forgotten them since FP was not asking for 2000 harness dates, and assured them that the IRB would be working with the Dept. of Ag. to give them "some relief", whatever that meant.
Tom Carey of Hawthorne, and a spokesman named White-something went next, and Tom outlined all the things Hawthorne has done for Illinois racing over the last two years, plus the improvements and marketing efforts, as well as the improvements in handle and the growing demand for HAW's signal out of state. Mr. White-something brought up a legal issue that HAW had with the awarding of dark days "host track" status, stating that it was HAW's position that AP wasn't entitled to any as the law made it clear that a track had to run a live meet in the preceding year, and that the "host track" dates system was a way to level the inequity of live dates awards. The issue of meet end dates was also mentioned, assuming there is boat money rolling in late next year. I didn't quite follow this last, but it seemed to have to do with maybe running longer than whatever dates the board might approve if it was justified by available purse money. Commissioner Gonzalez spoke up again regarding backside improvements needed at HAW, specifically including electrical work in the barns and grading for drainage on the backside. Somehow in here a list of things Spt was not doing as lessee of the land on which the new barns sit got introduced, and a minor furor ensued.
Charles Bidwell III and Ed Duffy then got up to state the Spt (National Jockey Club) case. The furor about the list of lease items at HAW continued for a little while until Chairman Lamb managed to squelch it. The main concern regarding NJC's application was whether or not the horse track over the car track is going to work. Butch Lehr from CD was on hand to testify to the effect that he thought it would probably be okay, and some details were discussed, but Ed Duffy admitted that the NJC had entered into a lease agreement whereby they could run elsewhere just in case it doesn't. A representative of the Jockey's Guild was asked what the jocks thought about it, and he said so far so good. The NJC's position is that this new track will be better than the old track, particularly in the area of eliminating the sharp turns. Much discussion about drainage.
After the thoroughbred applicants it was time for the harness applicants, and the Balmoral/Maywood entity went first, majing their case via a video which was duly sworn in, and for all the seriousness of the day, this thing was a hoot, with dramatic and overblown rhetoric and imagery and backing music, and up where I was with the press guys, folks were just about rolling in the aisles. The basic message was: Keep things just like they are, with Balmoral and Maywood the only harness tracks, which came as a total surprise. Interestingly, there was a great deal of discussion about the inner rail in this presentation. But it was a video, and the word synergy was used, so I knew right then that HAW had its work cut out for it trying to get a harness meet, as commissioner-types are notably weak when it comes to the word synergy.
HAW's Suburban Downs presentation came next, with lots of numbers regarding how handle was historically much higher on Cicero harness meets than the meets at Balmoral and Maywood, and there was a lot more discussion about the safety of HAW's Fontana rail vs. this "railless" system at use at the existing harness tracks, and it finally sunk into me that this was a big issue. It was at this point that Commissioner Admiral Peck spoke up and really started grilling Mr. White-something about this rail issue, not asking nicely like the other commissioners had done, but really being aggressive, so I knew right then that was strike two against HAW getting a harness meet.
After the tracks, the horsemen got to speak, and Tony Morgan of the harness horsemen went first. He said he had originally supported the idea of bringing a harness meet back to HAW, but that HAW had not met the harness horsemen's wishes on the hubless rail issue, so he would be backing the Balmoral/Maywood request. The commissioners asked Tony a lot of questions, and he basically said the hubless rail was the whole issue, that if just HAW had agreed to go along with that then then harness horsemen would have supported a meet at HAW, but since HAW didn't then they didn't. Stee-RIKE THREE! Since Tony was under oath, I have no reason to doubt him.
Our ITHA representatives for the N. Illinois thoroughbred horsmen went next, Joe Kasperski and Don Fritz, mostly Joe speaking, and Joe's message to the board was "don't do anything radical", followed by a request that Spt provide a written alternative if their new track doesn't work out, plus voicing some concerns about stabling for local horsemen at AP, which has always been a problem, plus concerns about AP's stated goal of eliminating Illinois bred races from the schedule. Commissioner Jackson made his contribution for the day here, asking to have the question of NJC's lease agreement made clear, and Ed Duffy said that the NJC had entered into an agreement with AP to lease their facility if the new track didn't work out. Commissioner Simon asked Scott Mordell about whether or not AP was specifically committed to picking up vanning costs for horses not stabled on the AP backside, and Scott Mordell managed to not answer the question directly.
Chairman Lamb then started adjourning the morning session, only to be remined at the last second that the southern Illinois thoroughbred horsemen had yet to speak, so a Mr. O'Brien of the So. IL HPBA got up and said they wholeheartedly supported FP's schedule.
No southern Illinois harness horsemen spoke.
Then it was time for lunch, and none too soon. I needed to get out of there.
Down to the street for some walking around on the busy streets of big Chicago, feeling the energy of the many people on the sidewalks of the financial district, and checking out the many small and unique shops, and browsing the farmer's market, and of course, since it was a McChump event, stopping in at Berghoff's for a giant wiess beer, $3.75.
Back at the State of Illinois building, it was observed that a certain high ranking official of a local track does not wash his hands after using the bathroom. Won't be shaking his hand any time soon.
Chairman Lamb started out the afternoon session by lecturing the local racetrack operators about not being able to reach a dates consensus before the hearing, and reminding them that he'd told them that if they couldn't agree amonst themselves, then they probably wouldn't like what the Board came up with. He then went on to state that his proposed schedule would showcase Arlington in the coming year, but that he hoped that next time they'd come to an agreement that would be good for a 3 year period.
Mr. Lamb's proposed schedule:
1/1-5/13, NJC as the host track, BUT for the period of 1/1-2/29, which would be dark, all earned purse monies to be transferred to AP to support their "Festival of Racing" months of July and August. Live racing to take place 3/1-3/13, with an estimated purse structure of $210k-$250k per day. Furthermore, he stipulated that if the NJC did not have a workable track by 1/31 of next year, then their dates would be rescinded, and the dates question would be revisted. I couldn't see Ed Duffy's face fully at this point, but there definitely was no smile. So much for the lease agreement.
Recommended AP dates to be 5/14-9/30, with purses in May, June, and September to be $225k-$250k/day, with the festival months of July and August to be $300k-$400k/day.
HAW TB dates to be 10/1-12/31, with anticipated purses of $210k-$225k/day.
Harness dates to remain status quo, only Balmoral and Maywood, and the FP schedule approved as proposed.
In the discussion that ensude among the commissioners, Commissioner Simon stated that he didn't think Chairman Lamb's schedule did not accomplish anything at all in terms of advancing Illinois racing, and proposed an alternate schedule of his own, that included a harness meet dring the summer at HAW, with a much shorter HAW TB meet, a longer AP meet, and two bad weather meets for NJC. Commissioner Kane supported that view, plus lectured the track owners on the need for consolidation in the Chicago market, saying 5 tracks was too many, and that tif they didn't do it, the IRB would do it for them. Commissioner Propes questioned how awarding dates to the NJC was going to move Illinois forward and how reducing dates for HAW is going to help, and noted that HAW had stepped up and carried Illinois racing when there was no one else there, but basically supported Chairman Lamb's proposal. Commissioner Gonzales stated his opinion that the Governor and Legislature might take a hand in consolidating the tracks if the track owners don't. Commissioner Admiral Peck blathered on about competition, but basically said nothing. But the court reporter on hand got his every word for the record.
Then it was time for the vote on Chairman Lamb's proposal, and Commissoners O'Fallon (whoa!), Simon, and Kane voted against, while the other six voted for. Chairman Lamb's proposal accepted. As the various motions to adopt the minutes of the last meeting and adjourn this one were made, seconded, and passed, the auditorium gradually erupted into hubbub.
Interesting conversations overheard on the way out. Someone I didn't know: "They got f*cked. They're out of business." Assume that was in regard to HAW. From the area including the Chicago horsemen: "That's $6.5M of earned purses that's going to be given away to out-of-state horsemen rather than the locals!" Assume that was in regard to teh reassignment of the NJC dark days purses. In the elevator lobby, Tony Morgan talking to a reporter: "If only they'd agreed to the hubless rail ...". In the elevator on the way down: Well I can't repeat that.
Down in the lobby, Tom Carey of HAW was standing off to the side, and looking very very antisocial.