If a state panel's approval Wednesday of 68 live racing dates for Arlington International Racecourse is any indication, equine athletes and maybe even spectators will be back at the storied Arlington Heights oval for the 2021 season.
But the formal approval by the Illinois Racing Board came only after commissioners, horse owners and trainers sought assurances from track management about their commitment to racing, following recent comments that cast doubt about the track opening next year.
During a quarterly earnings call with investors on July 30, Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said the land on which Arlington sits would have "a higher and better purpose for something else at some point."
And despite reaching a two-year agreement following contentious negotiations this year with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, Carstanjen said the track could run a 2021 meet "if we elect to do so." Last year, he had committed to keeping Arlington's gates open through 2021.
On Wednesday, Racing Board Chairman Dan Beiser asked Churchill corporate brass for a commitment for next year in writing.
"When comments are made like that, it does create a level of uncertainty for all of the men and women that are the backbone in a lot of ways of the horse racing industry, not just in Illinois, but everywhere that has horse racing, to plan for their future," said Beiser, of downstate Alton. "Arlington is really held near and dear by many, many people. What a beautiful facility that is and it would be a tragedy if we weren't able to keep that running like it is."
Arlington President Tony Petrillo said it is the track's intention to conduct the 2021 race meet. And he said formal confirmation of that intent would come when he signs the race dates acceptance letters that will be sent out by the racing board.
Petrillo added that Carstanjen, when he made the comments July 30, may not have been fully aware that Arlington already had a preliminary agreement with Hawthorne Race Course for splitting up the 2021 thoroughbred racing schedule.
The requested list of dates was posted on the racing board website July 31.
"We do feel our responsibility to the industry as well as the community, and we intend to fulfill that in 2021 and beyond that when the opportunity does exist," said Petrillo, adding that Churchill's corporate leadership team is having daily conversations about the future of Arlington.
Petrillo reiterated other statements made by Carstanjen, namely that Churchill would work with state and other officials to possibly move the racing license elsewhere in Illinois.
The horsemen's association, which represents nearly 2,500 owners and trainers at Arlington and Hawthorne, sought a condition as part of the board's approval that would withhold Arlington's recapture payment -- a fee that transfers money from horsemen's purse accounts to racetracks -- if Arlington doesn't run its promised 2021 schedule.
"We are gravely concerned about that statement that there is a 2021 contract that they may elect to run or not run," said Mike Campbell, the association's president. "In the world that I live in, words count."
But racing board attorney John Gay said a provision withholding recapture is against state statute.
Arlington's 2021 season is set to begin April 30 and conclude Sept. 25, with plans to bring back a number of events put on hiatus this year due to COVID-19. That includes the return of graded stakes races and renaming the Arlington Million the Mister D. Stakes in honor of chairman emeritus Richard Duchossois.
The shortened 2020 season continues Thursday through Saturday until Sept. 26, with up to 300 spectators allowed each day, under state rules.