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updated: 9/18/2011 8:17 AM

Uncertain future on the Arlington Park backstretch

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  • Backstretch workers at Arlington Park don't know what their future holds as business continues to decline at the racetrack.

       Backstretch workers at Arlington Park don't know what their future holds as business continues to decline at the racetrack.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer, July 2006

  • "Riding The Wind" peers out of his stall on Arlington Park's backstretch.

       "Riding The Wind" peers out of his stall on Arlington Park's backstretch.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer, May 2009

  • Race horses rest in the stables on Arlington Park's backstretch.

       Race horses rest in the stables on Arlington Park's backstretch.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer, May 2009

 
 

Horse racing represents all Dee Poulos knows and loves.

An Arlington Park mainstay for 38 years, the Palatine woman and former Northwest Suburban High School District 214 teacher took the reins of husband Ernie's training business after he died on Easter Sunday in 1997.

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"Hey, Dee," nods Reuben Mata Jr., a soft-spoken 20-year-old hot-walker, who stops inside her backstretch office one late summer morning, taking a seat at her small kitchen table, helping himself to one of the chocolates resting in a glass dish.

Outside the open screen door, Billie Jean, the well-fed goat that's become a sort of stable mascot, passes with a grunt.

"I just love it," Poulos says, tugging at the bill of her white ball cap, which is decorated with a rhinestone horseshoe. "I could not imagine getting up in the morning and not seeing a horse,"

Yet, this season, which draws to a close at the end of the month, Poulos says she's aware that her livelihood could be slipping through her fingertips.

Beyond the horse owners, jockeys and Arlington Park's management, there's another group of people you don't see much whose livelihoods depend on the future of the racetrack: The backstretch workers. From trainers to groomers to people like Mata who walk horses after exercise to cool them down, these behind-the-scenes workers live and breathe Arlington Park.

New state numbers show that betting at the track has continued its slide this year as the recession has clamped bettors' wallets and interest in horse racing continues to decline.

For Poulos, that means fewer horses than ever to train -- just 12 this year. She owns a partial share of three of those 12.

Her staff has dwindled from more than a dozen to just seven workers, a combination of full- and part-time hot-walkers, groomers and exercise riders, including some who have worked for her for more than two decades. Back in the early '90s, she and her husband employed more than two dozen.

"You have to get people to own horses," she said. "I can't own them all."

Similarly, Nancy Knott, an Arlington Heights-based equine massage therapist, has seen her business drop from 10 to 12 horses a day in good years to just five this season.

She and her husband, who also works in the industry, "never take a vacation" as they spend Arlington's off-season traveling to neighboring states to do work at other tracks.

"There's too much competition at the (Illinois) border," Knott says, referring to other states that have slot machines at their race tracks and, often, bigger prizes for race winners.

And a new casino -- a big competitor for gamblers' attention -- just opened a few miles away from Arlington Park in Des Plaines.

Illinois lawmakers sent Gov. Pat Quinn a plan to put up to 1,200 slot machines at Arlington Park. Quinn has spent all summer on a campaign against the proposal, though he's stopped short of saying he'll veto it. Supporters are looking to the fall to approve a compromise.

In the meantime, the workers have to wait or contemplate their potential elsewhere.

"I can't imagine (leaving Arlington)," Poulos said, looking around her small office at Arlington Park's backstretch. The walls are decorated with photos of winning horses over the years, including Black Tie Affair, the 1991 horse of the year, who won six consecutive graded stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

"We've been in this barn forever."

In 1991, more than $337 million was bet on live thoroughbred racing at tracks in Illinois. Last year, it was about $108 million, a drop of about 68 percent.

Illinois Racing Board numbers show that betting at Arlington Park is down once again down this year.

In 2009, from May -- when racing at the track opens -- to the end of August, people bet $68.8 million on either live or simulcast racing at Arlington Park. Over the same period in 2010, it was $63.2 million, a drop of about 8 percent. This year, it's $56.2 million, a drop of another 11 percent.

Poulos knows well there have been other times when industry workers weren't sure the track would survive. A July 1985 fire destroyed the park's grandstand and clubhouse, which were finally rebuilt in 1989. And Arlington Park closed for the 1998 and 1999 seasons, citing casino competition, but reopened after the industry got tax breaks and revenue sharing with casinos.

"Racetrackers are very resilient," Poulos said. "We truly are. And no one's given up hope, I don't think. Everyone's really hanging in there and trying to keep the show going. We don't want to think about not having Arlington, not being in the business. But you have to."

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