Arlington Park fabulous; racing not so much

Arlington Park fabulous; racing not so much

June 06, 2018 3:10 AM
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As we await Saturday’s historic try by Justify at Belmont Park to win horseracing’s elusive Triple Crown, I remain as confused as ever as to how my favorite sport can get back on its feet once more.

That’s all four of them, I hope.

For many of us die-hard fans of the sport, just what steps it must take to fix its myriad problems is even more elusive than that Triple Crown itself.

Just returning from Chicago on Sunday, I was able to delete a visit to the rebuilt Arlington Park off of my bucket list. The plant was as spectacular as I had been told and there was a decent crowd by today’s standards – including lots of young people and families with young children – yet something was missing.

Chicagoland horseracing had been a popular sport since the early days of the city in the 1830s, and the region had, at one time, six horse racing tracks – more than any other major metropolitan area. Arlington Park, which was called Arlington International for a bit before bouncing back to its original name, in 1981 was the site of the first thoroughbred race with a million-dollar purse, The Arlington Million, thus paving the way for a bump in purses around the world.

The track is credited with many other firsts, including becoming the first track to install a public-address system and employing the legendary Clem McCarthy to describe the action. In 1933, it added the first electric totalisator that allowed a reliable tote board and decreased time between races. It introduced the first electric starting gate in 1940 and in 1967 it boasted the largest closed circuit TV system in all of sports.

But, on July 31, 1985 a small fire spread quickly, racing out of control, totally destroying the grandstand and clubhouse.

Richard L. Duchossois, the leader of an Illinois investment group that had purchased the track from its former owners, had made a pledge to continue presenting championship racing and kept his word, rebuilding the grandstand in grand style. In 2000, Churchill Downs Incorporated bought into Arlington Park and began operating the track while Duchossois, now 96, still retains an interest in the facility.

Although I had been to Arlington Park as a college student in 1971, my memories are vague. One of my first jobs in 1973 had me working right across the street, but I had already moved on before racing started that spring.

I had always wanted to get back there.

Admission was fairly priced, the parking cost was minimal and beer and food, compared to Del Mar, were much cheaper and better. Employees were attentive and helpful. If there is any dirt or grime in the place, I couldn’t see it. The sun lights the whole grandstand and there’s lots of free, comfortable benches to sit on right above the finish line. Those choosing to stand by the rail get a good view of the race, too.

It’s a short walk to the spacious paddock and you can go down to get a close look at the horses or watch them from a balcony above near the statue of John Henry impossibly nosing out The Bart in that first Arlington Million in 1981.

So what’s the problem?

As several long-time employees I spoke to told me, “It just doesn’t feel like a racetrack.” I suppose that’s true, but as a friend once told me, he’d like to see the whole track picked up and placed at Del Mar, near San Diego.

Racing doesn’t really thrive at Arlington Park any longer. There are many reasons for that including the lack of support from Illinois politicians, an artificial dirt racing surface and low purses that keep many trainers away. This, despite what may be the best grass course anywhere in the United States.

Those I spoke to don’t think slot machines at the track would be of any help. It’s kind of a non-issue because state lawmakers seem to have expanded gambling, including slots, almost everywhere (excluding Chicago) except at the state’s surviving racetracks.

Sports wagering, when legalized in Illinois, remains a hope for the future, if the racetracks can get in on the action and if some of the proceeds are directed to better purses and a better quality of racing. However, that will not matter if more young people aren’t attracted to betting the ponies. Sure, there were plenty of youthful spectators enjoying the pageantry of the sport Saturday, but not enough of them were at the windows betting.

Sorry, but solving that dilemma is a problem to be unraveled by someone smarter than this reporter.