Hailed as the sport of kings, horse racing may soon need to set aside a part of its castle for the slot-machine serfs. A bill allowing slot machines at Arlington Park as a way to bring revenue to a fading horse racing industry awaits the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn. Even if one-armed bandits and four-legged steeds share the gambling landscape, they are different animals.
"I enjoy the horses. I enjoy sitting in the sun," says auto salesman Irv Gordon, 73, of Des Plaines as he basks away his day off in the lower outside level of the racetrack in Arlington Heights while his wife, Linda, has to go to work. "If they had slots here today, I would not be in there playing slots."
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Jockeys in silks of red, blue, yellow and green perch atop the magnificent beasts whose shiny coats reflect the sunshine. Stand by the rail and you can hear their thundering hoofs and heaving breaths as they sprint to the finish line.
"I think they are the most gorgeous creatures on God's Earth," says retired casino dealer Lyn Bray of Bourbonnais as she watches her 7-year-old grandson Jimmy Kehoe survey the pretty horses before picking his favorite.
The time between races is spent rehashing the thrill of watching your horse hold off the challengers at the wire, or lamenting the way your horse faded in the stretch. There is a pace to horse racing that allows for thoughtful reflection.
"It's much more relaxing out here," says track veteran Roy Cilia, 81, of Mount Prospect. "I usually run into somebody I know -- a neighbor, a friend, somebody I haven't seen in a while."
There is nothing relaxing about slot machines, with their flashing lights and cacophony of sounds constantly enticing you to make a bet.
"It will take me all day to lose $20 here. At a slot machine, it will take me five minutes," laughs Jim Herro, a 66-year-old retired brewery employee who says he and former co-worker Ronald Schleicher try to make an annual pilgrimage to Arlington Park from their homes in Milwaukee. The friends say they plan to bet $21 each during their day at the races, just as they budget their trips to their hometown casino. But Arlington Park is not a casino.
"This is a sporting event," Schleicher says.
"I come for the horses," Cilia says. "Slot machines, I don't like. They're losers."
Always the financial anchor of casinos, part of the slot machine's appeal is that it doesn't require a player to research horse statistics, learn the betting lingo, overcome a shyness to interact with others or invest a chunk of time.
"If I gamble, I play slots," says Jessica Armour as she and Tony Ardizzone watch their 9-month-old son, Elias, scream in joy at the sight of the horses. Ardizzone says he remembers coming to Arlington Park with his grandma when he was a kid.
"He's enjoying it," Armour says of their baby. "We're going to come out here more often."
Sitting by yourself in artificial light pushing buttons while staring at a screen on a slot machine sounds a lot like having a boring job, and certainly not like watching horses race.
"It's not the same," says track regular and retired teacher Arnold Mandell, 63, of Skokie, as he wedges his cigar into a gap in the cement that always serves as his personal cigar holder whenever he moseys into the air-conditioned, smoke-free premises to place a bet. "I like to handicap. It's fun to me. Just putting money in a slot machine doesn't entertain me. I like being at the track. It's fun. It's relaxing. It's pleasurable."
Perhaps no one is having as much fun as Joy Suerth, a frequent track patron who takes the train from her home in the Edison Park neighbor on Chicago's far Northwest side.
"I love it here," Suerth says as she leaves her friends to seek a tip from a horse-riding track employee who picked a winner during their earlier chat. "I work in retail and I never get to go outside."
Gambling, especially with slot machines and the Internet, can be an impersonal, sterile experience. Suerth, a 45-year-old mother of two boys, turns her track days into block parties or family reunions.
"I actually thought I'd see my parents here today," Suerth says, scanning the grandstands. "My kids like to come. My neighborhood comes. The neighbors all get off the train together."
Just as the Cubs added lights to Wrigley Field for financial reasons, these folks accept the argument that saddling Arlington Park with a separate building full of slot machines can bring in more money for horse racing. Slot players would be able to place horse bets on machines in their facility as if it were an off-track betting parlor. But fans at the racetrack, which allows children, would remain separate, unencumbered by slot machines. That suits the horse players.
"I come here to spend two or three hours outside, just get some fresh air. Sometimes you win a few dollars, sometimes you lose a few dollars," Cilia says, adding that the track provides more than the cold financial dealings offered by an inanimate slot machine. "The guy here says 'Hello' to you, 'How are you?' He knows you because he sees you come in all the time."
A fellow can enjoy a horse race without a care, says Dennis Barttlet, a 64-year-old Algonquin man whose white hat, flowered shirt, Ray-Ban sunglasses, well-worn racing program and big, old cigar make him look to be someone he is not.
"I don't gamble. I'm just here for the fresh air," Barttlet says. "What happens, happens. It's like watching a sail boat race to me. I'm going home with the money I brought."
A slot machine may be the savior for horse racing, but it can never replace horse racing.
"I think people who come to the racetrack," Mandell says, "come for the horses."