Requiem for a racing 'palace' Casinos, politics doomed Arlington

October 10, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. -- The close-out sale began Wednesday. Employees of Arlington International Racecourse were offered T-shirts, artwork, seat cushions and table settings at rock-bottom prices.

Today, the items become valuable only as souvenirs. Arlington, one of the grandest and most gracious racetracks in the country, closes after 70 years of charm, tragedy, rebirth and decline.

Situated 25 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, Arlington symbolized everything good about horse racing: a palatial facility where you didn't find a losing ticket on the floor, innovative management and marketing, friendly employees and young, upscale fans.

Yet Arlington's demise was the result of everything bad about horse racing and, according to those in the industry, everything threatening: self-destructive bickering among various factions of the industry, over-regulation by government agencies and intense competition from other forms of gambling, especially casinos.

"Arlington's closing has national ramifications for all of us," said Alan Foreman, a Maryland lawyer and executive director of Thoroughbred Horsemen's Associations, a group of horse trainers and owners from several states, including Illinois. "If Arlington can't make it, what does that say about the rest of the industry?"

Although some of the same forces that shut down Arlington are evident in Maryland, one crucial difference exists: state legislators in Maryland seem far more interested in preserving horse racing and its related agribusiness than do their counterparts in Illinois.

Also, Arlington competed with an armada of riverboat casinos in its state -- one 12 miles away -- as well as a gambling explosion in surrounding states.

"Arlington was getting hit with a single-barrel shotgun at very close range," said Joe De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park. "Granted, we don't have a riverboat in the Inner Harbor. But we're getting hit with a double-barrel shotgun from a little farther away."

Racetracks in Delaware and West Virginia have slot machines. Like De Francis, track owners in Pennsylvania and New Jersey covet them.

Dennis Dowd is president of Bally's Maryland Inc., which owns the Ocean Downs harness track near Ocean City. He was quick to join De Francis in responding to Arlington's closing by again calling for slots in Maryland.

Opposing voice

"This certainly strengthens the argument that for racing to survive -- quality racing, like they have at Laurel and Pimlico -- they're going to need slot machines," Dowd said. "All racing in Maryland is going to need that kind of help. I think that's become obvious."

That has not become obvious to Eugene Conti, chairman of the state study commission considering ways of helping the horse-racing industry. He said Arlington's closing, although sad for horse-racing fans nationwide, does not portend doom in Maryland.

"I just don't buy that," Conti said. "I don't think there's any great lesson for us here in Maryland.

"My view is: When you have casinos or riverboats that close to a racetrack, the racetrack can't compete. We don't have that situation in Maryland. And I don't think we're going to have it."

In Illinois, casinos and other forms of gambling suffocated Arlington.

In 1986, when Richard L. Duchossois bought out his partners and assumed full control of Arlington, the gambling potpourri in Illinois and surrounding states (Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Kentucky) consisted of 16 horse tracks, three dog tracks and three state lotteries.

In 1997, it consists of 17 horse tracks, seven dog tracks, six state lotteries and 54 casinos. Of those 54 casinos, 10 are riverboats in Duchossois' own state.

"Riverboats are fine," said Duchossois, sitting at his desk this week, two days before his track's closing. "They're a new innovation. The car came along and knocked out the horse, right?

"All we've ever asked for is a level playing field. Don't make us compete with over-regulation, over-legislation and over-taxation."

Duchossois echoes track owners across the country, including Tom Meeker of Churchill Downs and De Francis.

As gambling expands around them, they increasingly talk of their tracks as potential entertainment venues, not only for horse racing but also for concerts and quality restaurants. The problem, for many in and out of the industry, is that funding for these ventures would come largely from slots at the tracks.

De Francis is fond of saying: "Unless we evolve and adapt to the demands of the 21st century, we're going to go the way of the dodo bird."

Arlington goes that way today -- even though when Duchossois rebuilt the old Arlington Park, destroyed by fire in 1985, the new Arlington International Racecourse seemed poised to lead the way into the next century.

A vision of grandeur

A self-made multi-millionaire, Duchossois sank nearly $200 million of his fortune into the track.

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