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Arlington Park is not a safe bet to survive

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Arlington_2012
The sun rises every morning at Arlington Park. It may be setting for the last time this fall, when the track is scheduled to host its last race. (Ron Flatter archive)

Las Vegas

Richard Duchossois probably has a big party planned for Oct. 7. That is a Thursday. The day he turns 100.

His birthday blowout will come 12 days after he attends a wake. Sometime just before sunset on Saturday, Sept. 25, the last race will be run at Arlington Park – the House That Mr. D. Rebuilt.

Churchill Downs Inc. surprised no one by confirming this week it has put the 326 acres of prime real estate underneath Arlington Park up for sale. It has committed to racing this year, and then that is that. In what would have been a futures-book long shot, oddsmakers could make Duchossois a minus-120 favorite now to outlive his track.

Yes, his track. He bought it in 1983. When it burned down in 1985, he went all phoenix with it and had the joint rising again better than ever. And better than anywhere. One may bask in the scenery at Del Mar and Santa Anita or feel the history coursing through Saratoga. Thirty two years after its grand reopening, Arlington International Racecourse is still the nation’s most beautiful racing plant.

It goes without saying it is a calamity that it will be sold and torn down – although plenty of racing lovers are going through the motions of saying it. Churchill has made it clear it will not let a business rival buy it. Not just a competitor in horse racing but gambling as a whole. CDI also owns Rivers Casino, which is about halfway between Arlington Park and the Chicago Loop. When it bought in, that was the first tangible sign that it was getting out of the suburban racing business.

Who will really miss Arlington Park? Certainly the people whose livelihoods depend on it, but that number is dwindling. So, too, is the fan base. When there is not a virus closing down the planet, the annual August running of the Arlington Million, renamed this final year the Mr. D. Stakes, attracts about 40,000 people. Otherwise the track struggles to get that many spectators in a month.

The quality of Illinois racing has deteriorated rapidly. Handle that was north of $1 billion three decades ago is less than a tenth of that now. For years horsemen and even track management at Arlington and nearby Hawthorne Park pleaded with the state to give them more forms of gambling. Now that they are finally allowed to have them, CDI said no to installing slot machines at the track, the better to make money with them at its casino in Des Plaines.

It feels too late for Illinois racing, particularly in Chicagoland. Hawthorne will no doubt try to poach Arlington’s summertime dates in 2022, but it cannot reclaim the owners and trainers who moved out. It turns out longstanding alternate revenue streams – many with five cherries occasionally lined up horizontally – are not that far away in Indiana and Iowa. Positive momentum is long gone. If Illinois racing ever again attracts $1 billion, a loaf of bread will cost $100.

Churchill says it is “very committed to pursuing the relocation of Arlington’s racing license to another community in the Chicagoland area or elsewhere in the state.” To that the Illinois Horsemen’s Association is playing its proper contrarian role, calling CDI “disingenuous” and adding that “the license is not Churchill’s to move.”

“It is our intention to work constructively with state and local authorities to find a solution to continue Thoroughbred operations in Illinois,” CEO Bill Carstanjen told shareholders Thursday. That was right after he said CDI wants “to sell this highly desirable land for other non-horse racing, mixed-use options.”

We have seen this before. Two years ago the old owners of Turfway Park thumped their chests and said they would not cave in to the competitive pressure coming from under the twin spires in Louisville. What was Churchill’s response? It wrote a big check. The competitors wilted. The big guys bought the track – lock, stock and casino. Minor-league racing continues at Turfway Park, and the grandstand is being replaced by a new gaming palace to serve greater Cincinnati.

Churchill just closed the artist formerly known as Calder in Florida, the better to turn that land into another in a long line of south Florida developments. In southern California that stadium where the Rams and Chargers play is on the site that used to be Hollywood Park, which CDI sold as real estate in 2005. Eight years later the track was closed forever.

Can Illinois buy eight years to prolong the end for Arlington Park? Aside from nostalgic racegoers – myself included – it is hard to conjure enough groundswell to think it could happen. Follow the money. It is not there. Illinois horsemen are trying to pass the hat and make an offer themselves, but they are toting small potatoes. Go back to the more than $900 million missing from annual wagers. Where are they going to find the nine digits worth of dollars to buy that land?

COVID did not help. A dispute between horsemen and management did not help. Corporate America did not help. And Mr. D. could not help. He may still drive that white Corvette convertible with a firm foot on the accelerator. At least he did the last time I had a long conversation with him in 2018. His ears may fail him at times, but he was still very much on the ball not so long ago. We all should be so plugged in at half his age. But aside from his emeritus role, he gave up his at Arlington Park power years ago.

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Richard Duchossois was in charge of a tank-destroyer battalion in northern France during World War II. He survived the Falaise Pocket and the Battle of the Bulge. Pity that even the immortal Mr. D. does not have the army to win this battle with Churchill Downs.

Racing notes and opinions

Now that the snow has been cleared in Arkansas, the $750,000 Grade 3 Southwest Stakes will finally be run Saturday. But weekend rain is forecast to put the “ark” back in Oaklawn Park. A wet track might be made to order for Jackie’s Warrior (8-5 morning line). The two-time Grade 1 winner will probably set the pace and avoid getting mud in his eye during the 8½-furlong race in which the Eclipse Award-winning tandem of the undefeated Essential Quality (3-2) and trainer Brad Cox will be favored. “You’ve got the 2-year-old champion, and I think we’ll have our work cut out for us,” Jackie’s Warrior trainer Steve Asmussen said on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “It is another opportunity for him at two turns. He deserves the opportunity.” Jackie’s Warrior was 4-for-4 before his route debut resulted in a fourth-place finish to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Bob Baffert shipped in Los Alamitos Futurity winner Spielberg (9-2), a non-factoring fourth last month in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. If the track comes up sloppy, Jackie’s Warrior will be the on-the-nose play. If not, it will be hard to look past Essential Quality, who looks a cut above the rest and is deserving of being the Kentucky Derby favorite. Those two and Spielberg are so much better than the rest of the field that a box trifecta is the obvious play, even if it will not pay much. A 10-4-2-1 Derby points prep, the Southwest is scheduled for Saturday at 5:58 p.m. EST.

If styles make fights, then the contrast between the deep-closing Greatest Honour and the frontrunning Prime Factor should provide all the framework needed for Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at sunny Gulfstream Park. Rallying from last to win the Holy Bull by 5¾ lengths for trainer Shug McGaughey, Greatest Honour (9-5) lured so many futures bets that he is now best-priced in Las Vegas at 11-1 to win the Kentucky Derby. Only Life Is Good at 7-1 and Essential Quality at 10-1 are shorter. Rather than set the pace as the betting favorite, Prime Factor (5-1) stalked the pace without success in the Holy Bull and wound up third. The play here will be with the rail starter Drain The Clock (5-1). If not for a broken iron that lost him his rider in his third start, he might be undefeated. His 6¼-length victory for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. in the Grade 3 Swale sprint last month at Gulfstream Park stamped his legitimacy. The question is whether – say it all at once now – he can get two turns. Since he has gained ground at the end of his victories, I am counting on it to happen again. My vertical bets will box Drain The Clock, Prime Factor, Greatest Honour and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Fire At Will (7-2), a versatile-looking colt that I trust will make a successful move back to dirt. A virtual win-and-you’re-in qualifier for the Derby, the Fountain of Youth has a post time of Saturday at 6:10 p.m. EST.

After Spendthrift Farm spent $9.5 million to buy her the day after her Breeders’ Cup Distaff win last fall, Monomoy Girl (1-1) makes her 6-year-old debut Sunday in what is expected to be a wet renewal of the $250,000 Grade 3 Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Finite (9-5), a Grade 3 winner at a mile two starts ago, has won 3 of 4 starts on sloppy tracks. Before any bettor thinks the weekend weather makes this an a-ha moment, Monomoy Girl herself is 2-for-2 in wet going. This has the look of a hand-ride victory for Florent Géroux and the two-time Eclipse Award winner. The fillies-and-mares feature may not be worth a bet, but Monomoy Girl will be worth watching as she starts what is probably her last year on the track for Cox. The Bayakoa is posted for Sunday at 6:11 p.m. EST.

International jockey challenges are hardly new. There was one last week before the Saudi Cup, and there is always another every December a few days before the Hong Kong International Races. (What is it about oppressive regimes and jockey challenges?) How about an intramural showdown? What would happen if star afternoon jockeys were challenged by the men and women who ride horses during morning workouts? Such a matchup is happening Saturday in South Africa. It is a six-furlong maiden race with seven licensed jockeys each carrying 6½ pounds more than seven exercise riders. According to Turf Talk, the race carried so much backside interest that it had to be cut from 38 entries to 14. It will be worth $10,915 and run on the undercard of the Cape Derby at Kenilworth. The professional jockeys are riding for a charity to benefit racetrack stable workers. One question is how bettors and bookmakers will approach the race. If it works there, why not try it here in America, especially with so many retired jockeys riding in the morning? Do I hear Rosie Napravnik and Zoe Cadman joining Baffert’s own Humberto Gómez in a showdown against the Ortiz brothers and Flavien Prat?

In addition to this article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The Kentucky Derby trail reaches the Southwest Stakes and Fountain of Youth this weekend, and those races are the focus of the RFRP. Trainer Steve Asmussen talks about his top Derby prospect Jackie's Warrior. John Pricci of Horse Race Insider offers a preview from south Florida. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo handicaps Saturday’s preps. There is also Twitter feedback and comments on Churchill Downs’ impending sale of Arlington Park. The RFRP is available for download Friday and free subscription now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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