The Bitter End: Arrogance Of Arlington Park Management Washes Away Memories Of A Better Time

The new millennium was not kind to horse racing in Chicagoland.

In 2000, the Bidwill family’s Sportsman’s Park, the bullring in the gritty south side suburb of Cicero that for years hosted both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing, had just been transformed to an auto track that planned to continue offering Thoroughbred races on dirt spread over a concrete oval. That absurd experiment lasted a couple years. The auto track was a dud and a financial disaster. The dirt track was unsafe. Sportsman’s ran its last horse race in 2002 and is now the site of several big box stores.

And 2000 was also the year Richard Duchossois merged his family-owned Arlington Park in the northwest Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights into the portfolio of the publicly traded Churchill Downs Inc. Then under the leadership of Thomas Meeker, Churchill Downs had been on something of an acquisition spree, having just purchased Calder Race Course near Miami, Fla., and Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif.

We know how those acquisitions have worked out for the Thoroughbred industry. Meeker left Churchill Downs in 2006, one year after Hollywood Park was sold to a land development company that would close the track in 2013 and construct an NFL football stadium in its place.

Calder’s grandstand was torn down in 2015 and the racing surface and a portion of the stables were leased to The Stronach Group, owner of Gulfstream Park, to run a spectator-less meet re-branded as Gulfstream Park West. That lease expired last year and Calder/GP West is now history. So, too, are the purse supplements that came from the Calder Casino, for which horsemen helped Churchill Downs Inc. fight for approval in a 2008 referendum.

It’s difficult to imagine how there is a future for Arlington Park as a racetrack after the current meet ends next month. Churchill Downs Inc. is majority owner of Rivers Casino 10 miles away and turned down the opportunity created in 2019 by gambling expansion legislation that would have permitted an on-site casino at Arlington. Illinois breeders, owners and trainers were stunned and felt betrayed when Arlington said it would not apply for a casino license and instead sell the property for development. For years, decades even, horsepeople stood side by side with Arlington representatives in the state capitol in Springfield, lobbying for legislation to permit slots or casinos at racetracks.

Arlington did not apply for 2022 racing dates and it would not be in Churchill Downs Inc’s best interests as a casino company to sell the track to anyone who would offer pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. That would be competition for the gambling dollar and conceivably could hurt Rivers Casino’s business.

The Carey family’s Hawthorne Race Course appears to be Illinois racing’s last hope – unless you count old Fairmount Park in southern Illinois, which has been rebranded as FanDuel Sports Book and Horse Racing.

Hawthorne, which sat directly adjacent to Sportsman’s Park, announced plans for a $500 million casino expansion following the 2019 gambling legislation. But construction on the casino was halted in April, with no public explanation or a timeline for completion.

Even if the Hawthorne casino is completed, the situation is far from ideal. Hawthorne is now the only track hosting Standardbred racing in the Chicago area, and this creates not only a potential conflict over racing dates between the two breeds, but future revenue from the casino earmarked for purses will have to be divided between Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. The 2019 legislation permitted a new harness track/casino to be built in an area south of Chicago, but to date neither a suitable investor or property has been approved.

Arlington’s racing days are dwindling down to a precious few, The palatial grandstand remains one of the great wonders of the North American racing world, though it’s obvious the once pristine aesthetics and maintenance standards set by the very hands-on Richard Duchossois have fallen considerably as he approaches the century mark in years. Unsightly weeds growing throughout the plant are just one of the eyesores that wouldn’t have been there a decade ago. In fact, back then, Duchossois himself might have grabbed a weed wacker to show the maintenance crew how it’s done, just as he took control of traffic flow into the parking lot one Arlington Million day not that many years ago.

Speaking of Arlington Million Day, or whatever it was called this year after the signature race’s purse was slashed and renamed the Mr. D. Stakes in honor of Duchossois, how about that Tony Petrillo, the track’s president?

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Based on reporting by Jim O’Donnell in the Daily Herald (apparently the only Chicago-area newspaper to cover this year’s three Grade 1 races, with both the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times ignoring them), Petrillo had quite the meltdown, lashing out at media members who did come to cover the races. According to O’Donnell and confirmed by several writers and photographers from horse racing publications, Petrillo would not allow photographers, other than the track photographer, to get in position to photograph any of the big turf races.

After the day’s final race was run, buoyed with members of the security staff, Petrillo cleared out the press box while those same writers and photographers were trying to finish their assignments and send their stories and pictures to their respective publications.  Petrillo even told one photographer who happened to be on assignment for a Churchill Downs Inc. subsidiary, that she was “banned for life” from Arlington Park.

It’s the same treatment owners and trainers have been receiving from Arlington management in recent years.

There was a time when Arlington Park’s press box was as welcoming and friendly as any track in the country. It wasn’t just the comfortable accommodations or the excellent meals that were served to grateful writers and photographers. More importantly, Richard Duchossois would walk through the press box and thank each member of the media individually for coming to Arlington Park, asking them if there’s anything they needed.

How times have changed.

My gut feeling is that this is the end of the road for Arlington Park, the track where I fell in love with racing in the 1970s. It’s been a long, slow and painful death to observe since Duchossois relinquished complete control of Arlington in 2000. I may not agree with them, but I understand business decisions and fiduciary responsibilities that drive publicly traded companies like Churchill Downs Inc. What I don’t understand is the arrogance and nastiness from Arlington’s management that has accompanied the track’s tragic fall.

I had always thought the final days of Arlington Park would be bittersweet, a mix of sorrow with the great memories furnished by the horses and people who put on the show for so many decades. But the architects of what seems destined to be this wonderful track’s final chapter seem hell bent on making sure it’s a bitter end.

 

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