When I first started going to the races at Arlington Park in 1977, overnight purses averaged $77,000 a day. Doesn't sound like much, but that's over $300,000 in 2015 dollars after being adjusted for inflation.
Purses rose steadily in the 1980s and ‘90s and into the first decade of the current century. In 2007, for example, daily average purses at Arlington were $277,280 ($318,018 in 2015 dollars).
How can it be, then, that Illinois horsemen are now competing for a paltry $115,000 a day in overnight purses?
Just as one example, 2-year-old maiden special weight races at Arlington are offering a $21,600 purse. That's less than tracks in neighboring states are putting into maiden races: Indiana Grand ($32,000), Prairie Meadows in Iowa ($30,000), Ellis Park in Kentucky ($29,000) and Canterbury Park in Minnesota ($28,000).
It is any wonder more Illinois horsemen are looking elsewhere to race their stock?
The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association blames Arlington Park management and its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., for trying to tank horse racing to help their cause in getting slots legislation passed. Arlington and CDI blame the horsemen and have done everything they can to undermine the Illinois THA. The two sides have been at loggerheads for years, but never have things gotten as bad as they are now. The back-and-forth public comments have been vicious and counter-productive from both sides.
Arlington wanted to cut races from daily programs because of poor field size. Horsemen opposed that and in fact are pushing for more racing dates in the future as part of a slots proposal under consideration in the state capital.
The breeding industry has been in free-fall. In 2004, more than 1,100 mares were bred in Illinois. In 2014, it was fewer than 300.
The only thing both sides seem to agree on is that slots at racetracks are the answer. As long as Arlington/CDI and the horsemen are fighting, however, I wouldn't blame Illinois politicians for thumbing their nose at the horse industry and telling them to settle their differences, then come to Springfield to ask for help.
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