View From The Eighth Pole: Sad State Of Affairs At Once-Mighty Arlington Park

T.V. Lark, Ridan, Candy Spots, Tosmah, Tom Rolfe, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Exclusive Native and Ack Ack.

Those are the winners in consecutive years in the 1960s of what was then one of the biggest races in the country: the Arlington Classic, run  at Arlington Park in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago.

This was back in a day when Arlington Park held its own nationally. It was one of the top tracks in the country attracting many of the best stables, trainers and jockeys.

The slide in quality of Chicago racing was well underway when Arlington burned to the ground in 1985, even though for one weekend a year since 1981 it drew international attention because of the world’s first million-dollar race, the Arlington Million.

The rebuilt Arlington Park remains one of the most beautiful racetracks you’ll see anywhere. And if you haven’t seen it, that’s too bad; I’m not sure you’ll have another chance.

Arlington Park could be up and running now, without spectators as most North American tracks are doing. It isn’t operating because Arlington initially was reluctant to do what others have done, their management team saying they were different than all those others, that it didn’t make economic sense for them to run without on-track customers.

Arlington did an about face when the Illinois Racing Board threatened to take away their profitable host status for simulcasting this summer (including the Belmont Stakes and Kentucky Derby) and give it to Hawthorne, so the south suburban track could begin compiling purse revenue for its fall Thoroughbred meet.

The regulators obviously knew Arlington’s soft spot was very close to their wallet.

Hawthorne management, unlike Arlington, did everything it could to be ready to open a standardbred meeting as soon as it got the green light from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown of non-essential businesses throughout the state. Hawthorne also allowed a large number of Thoroughbreds and the hundreds of people who care for them to remain on the track’s backstretch even though the live race meet was months away. For Hawthorne, it seemed like the right thing to do despite the hit the track would take to its bottom line.

Arlington, on the other hand, is trying to squeeze every last nickel it can from the horsemen. In addition to the $4.5 million from the purse fund the track gets through the archaic recapture law, Arlington made millions of dollars as simulcast host in January and February. Hawthorne agreed to defer taking recapture funds from horsemen in 2020 and ’21 while waiting for the track’s casino to start producing revenue for purse money.

Arlington has been dragging its feet in negotiations with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association on a contract for 2020 – something that should have been completed months ago. The track is insisting on a two-year contract at a time when no one has any idea what 2021 is going to look like because of the ongoing public health crisis. Arlington would like to force starving Illinois horsemen to foot the bill for an extravagant stakes feast in 2021 that would include $1 million for the Arlington Million and $600,000 for a second Grade 1 race on the day, the Beverly D. Stakes. That’s a lot to ask when all the horsemen are hoping for is a lousy $165,000 a day in overnight purses.

The two sides have agreed in principle on what a 2020 meet will look like: 30 days of racing between Aug. 1-Sept. 30, with the stable area and training open at least a month before opening day. No open stakes will be funded by horsemen’s share of purses. There will be no guarantee for overnight purse levels.

The proposed schedule would include racing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which would put Arlington up against the likes of Saratoga and Del Mar. The quality of Arlington’s races has fallen so far the track would be better off competing for wagering dollars against smaller tracks racing Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but apparently management still considers the track “major league.”

Horsemen said they would consider a two-year deal if no money came out of the purse fund for the 2021 Arlington Million and Beverly D. Stakes until they hit a revenue mark from wagering ($11 million) to ensure that $165,000 would be available for daily purses over the course of a 65-day meet. If the track wanted to host a big Arlington Million weekend for out-of-town horsemen, the ITHA has said, they can pay for it out of their own pocket if enough money is not generated through wagering.

That’s been the sticking point for marathon negotiations that were held last weekend among the various parties (and, ironically, hosted by Hawthorne).

And what happens after 2021 should the two sides get together and conduct race meetings over the next two years?

Arlington and its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., are not saying, though it’s pretty obvious the die was cast when Arlington declined to pursue a casino license made possible through 2019 legislation. That came after decades of lobbying by Arlington for a racetrack casino.

What changed?

CDI recently became majority owner of Rivers Casino 11 miles away from Arlington and CDI management apparently feels two casino properties in close proximity to one another would not make sense financially.

It’s a good thing no one told Bugsy Siegel about that.

The days of champions stabling at Arlington Park are long over. The painful deterioration of the Thoroughbred industry in Illinois is mirrored by an Illinois foal crop that will dip below 100 this year. Twenty years ago it topped 1,000. Arlington has been driving the bus through this long, steady decline. It’s sad to see what’s become of this once-mighty racetrack.

It would be nice if the two sides can come to some agreement and race over the next two years at Arlington Park before a wrecking ball is likely to knock the joint down to make room for a housing or mixed-use development.  If that deal doesn’t happen, and soon, the Illinois Racing Board will have no choice but to recognize Hawthorne as not only the future of Illinois racing, but the present. If it does not offer live racing in earnest this year, Arlington doesn’t deserve a penny more in simulcast revenue. That should go to the track that wants horse racing to survive: Hawthorne.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

 

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