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Racing is losing more than an old track

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Arlington_Park_sunrise

Chicago

After nearly an hour of perfunctory speeches, bureaucratic officiousness and enough technical problems to shove digital advancements back to the steam age, another domino fell Thursday in the inexorable march to the burial of Arlington Park.

Inside the Chicago Loop in a dowdy conference room that looked like it could be a stand-in for mock court, the Illinois Racing Board voted 7-0 to grant racing dates in 2022 to Hawthorne Park and Fairmount Park. And not to Arlington.

Formerly a year-round operation near St. Louis, Fairmount asked for and received 61 racing dates between April and September. On its way to becoming a year-round operation, Hawthorne in nearby Stickney was granted 76 Thoroughbred cards and 75 more for harness racing.

Arlington asked for nothing and got it.

Unless a genie comes out of a bottle that does not belong to a master named Churchill Downs Inc., the track that opened on a cold autumn day 94 years ago will be closed to the public forever Saturday night, locked up after nine afternoon races and a fireworks show.

“It’s going to be a day that I just want to absorb everything about Arlington,” track president and general manager Tony Petrillo said on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “I want to be able to walk around, see the people, the fans having a good time having a great experience and talk to some of the horsemen. Maybe there’s a way I convince them that we’ll be back, and these problems that we see today will be resolved.”

Petrillo’s bosses at CDI say they are in the process of selling the track to someone outside of horse racing. Even though he is not sure what kind of a job he will have next week, he loyally speaks the company line. He said a new racecourse could be opened one day on a smaller piece of property in northern Illinois.

It is hard to find any takers, especially at a time when the sport is dying in this state. Just look at the very breeding of racehorses.

“Fifteen years ago there were 2,400 foals born in Illinois,” David McCaffrey, executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, told the IRB on Thursday morning. “In 2019 there were 401. That is like an 85 percent decrease.”

It is worse here than in the rest of the country. The trend has been drifting the wrong way for decades in the nation’s third largest media market. In New York the game has survived and even thrived with two tracks serving the city. Even after Churchill shut down Hollywood Park, Los Angeles racing has maintained a high profile, even if it feels like Santa Anita is barely clinging to it. But Chicago? The sport used to be big here. Really big, with a legacy that includes Dr. Fager, Secretariat and John Henry. But it has taken a hard fall.

Even when the pandemic and the suspension of other sports reintroduced a significant number of bettors to racing, Illinois in general and Arlington in particular missed the boat. COVID restrictions on public gatherings did not help. Neither did a vicious dispute between CDI and the ITHA. But aside from what used to be the Arlington Million, attractive races disappeared from here years ago. Blame that on the dwindling purse money that has yet to see the promise of a booster shot from casino dollars and legalized sports betting.

“The reality is that the gaming bill was passed two years ago, and we don’t have the first quarter of income from that casino,” ITHA president Mike Campbell said, pointing a finger of blame at Hawthorne Park and its attendant delay in opening a gambling parlor that was authorized for the track. “When is it going to happen? What can we rely on? With Arlington’s supposed demise, where does that leave us? I’m afraid we’re going to have a bad ending if something doesn’t happen very quickly to fuel these purses with racino money.”

It already may be too late. Trying to resuscitate racing in northern Illinois would take a lot of heavy lifting over a long period of time. Even if purse money were to get an instant booster shot, it will take a lot of convincing to lure jaded horsemen back to a state where the rug has been pulled out from under them.

Richard Duchossois is widely hailed for building the grandest of racing grandstands after an electrical fire totaled the old Arlington in 1985. However, in 1997, he went home and took his ball and bat with him. He was peeved that politicians in Springfield greased the skids for riverboats and casinos and the Powerball – and not for horse racing. Taking that as a slap in the face, he closed the track for 2½ years. By the time he reopened it in the spring of 2000, he was 40 days and 40 nights from selling the joint to Churchill. Horsemen have never forgotten that.

Horseplayers might not be conscious of that history, but it is no coincidence that their dollars have gradually disappeared. Throw out 2020, when most of the track’s year was wiped out by the pandemic and the CDI-ITHA contract dispute. In 2019, Arlington hosted 71 race days with $15 million in purse money and attracted $145 million in bets. Contrast that to nine years ago, when there were 90 race days, $30 million in purses and $230 million in handle. There is a clear cause and effect here.

With one less track in play, the total number of Thoroughbred racing dates near Chicago will plunge from this year’s 118 between Arlington and Hawthorne to next year’s 76 at Hawthorne. That is a 39 percent drop. Not exactly a welcome mat for horseplayers.

In less than two weeks Mister D. turns 100. It was 28 years ago when he hired Petrillo to build an off-track betting network at Arlington. Eleven years ago Petrillo was promoted by CDI to his current role of president and general manager of the track. COVID caution has kept Duchossois from coming to Arlington this year, but it has not kept him from having frequent, long conversations with his protégé.

“The more you speak with him the sharper he gets,” Petrillo said. “I just cherish those hours that I get to spend with him. There were days where we would sit for three hours and go over the same subject in detail so many times. He presented things to you in so many different ways. He was really trying to teach whoever he was working with and pass on his knowledge and his experience. I’m forever grateful for that.”

Against the odds of mortality, Duchossois is going to outlive the track that he bought, rebuilt, closed, reopened and sold to the company that is going to sell it out of existence. In that context, Petrillo said that irony has not come up in recent chats with his old boss.

“He completely understands the economics and the decisions that were made,” Petrillo said. “He’s very attached to (the track), but at the end of the day he’s a businessman, and he understands that decisions have to be made on good, solid, business common sense and not on emotion.”

Emotion and business will clash one last time Saturday, when the house that Mister D. built attracts its biggest crowd since the last-ever running of the Arlington Million in 2019. Who knows how the patrons will react? Remember, this is the city that viciously tattooed a scarlet letter on Steve Bartman 18 years ago after he tried to intercept a foul ball from Moises Alou.

Petrillo said it is unfair to call Churchill Downs the bad guy in all this. At least from his point of view.

“They have the largest number of racetracks of any racing company in the United States, so there is a huge investment in racing,” he said. “Here in Illinois there is the prospect of finding a new location and building out a facility with a much smaller footprint and better economics. I hope that happens.”

But it will not be the same. Nothing can replace Arlington Park, where Saturday’s requiem will have the feel of a dirge.

It deserves better. And so do horseplayers.

Racing notes and opinions

The defection of Medina Spirit from Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby not only robs the race of its best storyline, it also removes the most important element of the early pace – but not the only one. His tainted result from the Kentucky Derby does not erase the fact he got out on a loose lead he never should have enjoyed. Without him this weekend, the early lead could be contested by Midnight Bourbon (5-1), Weyburn (12-1) and maybe I Am Redeemed (20-1). On paper Midnight Bourbon is the best of them, but he carries the burden of second-itis, his only win this year coming in gate-to-wire fashion eight months ago in the Lecomte. Morning-line favorite Hot Rod Charlie (5-2), winless since the Louisiana Derby, is branded with the same tattoo, although he showed plenty of fight July 17, when he finished first in the Haskell before being disqualified for interference. For that reason he has to be included on any ticket. However, the play here will be with Godolphin homebred Speaker’s Corner (12-1). His stalking victory by 5¼ lengths in a seven-furlong allowance race last month at Saratoga earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 101, according to the Daily Racing Form. It also suggested he should get the added distance he will face going 1⅛ miles Saturday. A bullet work last weekend for trainer Bill Mott did not hurt his case, either. I will take Speaker’s Corner in a win-place play and key him in exotics with Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon and I Am Redeemed. A partly cloudy, 75-degree day is expected for the Pennsylvania Derby, which is scheduled to start Saturday at 5:49 p.m. EDT.

Like her stablemate Midnight Bourbon, morning-line favorite Clairière (2-1) also seems to have an aversion to winning for trainer Steve Asmussen. Most recently second to Malathaat in the Grade 1 Alabama, she has lost five in a row since a narrow victory seven months ago in the Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds. She will come from off the pace in Saturday’s 8½-furlong test for 3-year-old fillies. Always Carina (6-1) should bring the lone early speed, but any thought that she will take the field from gate to wire comes with the caveat that she has never raced around two turns. This is not to ignore the proven talent in this race. Army Wife (7-2) won a pair of graded stakes for trainer Mike Maker before fading late to finish third in the Alabama. That was at 1¼ miles. The 330-yard cutback should be made to order for her. Army Wife is the play here over Always Carina, Clairière and Leader Of The Band (12-1), a Grade 3 winner coming off Lasix. The Cotillion is posted for Saturday at 5:02 p.m. EDT.

Only a day after two-time U.S. Grade 1 winner Santa Barbara (3-1) had what trainer Aidan O’Brien said was “a little setback,” Coolmore in Ireland announced she displaced her fractured pelvis and had to be euthanized. The 3-year-old by Camelot had been the futures favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, and it is unclear who will replace her in that role. Flower Bowl winner War Like Goddess (5-1) and Prix Vermeille runner-up Snowfall (6-1) are next in the international market, the same one that still shows Gufo (9-2). Yes, Gufo, a colt that persists in being listed with one global bookmaker. Frankly, entry into foreign futures should come with a warning label.

Saturday marks 700 days since Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association stopped doing business with one another. The telephone conversation they had this month obviously did not move the needle enough to prevent the ignominious milestone. So Nevada continues to get along without legal wagering on Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn and Turfway Park. If only I knew how to spell SMH.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode comes from Arlington Park, where general manager Tony Petrillo discusses Saturday’s final race card in the track’s 94-year history. Trainer Robertino Diodoro talks about Keepmeinmind’s bid to pull off an upset in Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby. Rampart Casino sportsbook director Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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