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updated: 10/10/2011 9:04 AM

Duchossois says slots aren't the only way to save horse racing

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  • Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.

       Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.

       Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.

       Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.

       Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois is still an ardent advocate for slot machines at the racetrack, but says additional gambling isn't the only solution to the horse-racing industries woes.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Duchossois on surviving war, life in business

 
 

Second of two parts

The horse racing industry in Illinois has, for years, rested its future in gambling legislation that would allow slot machines at tracks to boost purses, and therefore, revenues.

That legislation is, at the moment, stalled, approved by the General Assembly but not yet on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk.

Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois says the industry needs the legislation. He's personally urged the governor -- who has expressed long-standing concerns about gambling expansion -- to sign it.

But in the privacy of his Arlington Park boardroom, he strays, slightly, from the company line.

"Slots aren't the only answer," Duchossois said. "We need them now, but we're getting to a point where there's going to be an oversaturation."

While Duchossois says the racing industry needs the gaming bill, and "needs it bad," it is clear, from a number of his directives, that the park is not pinning its survival solely on slots.

Instead, Arlington's future -- like its $200 million rise from the ashes -- is tied to Duchossois, and he to it.

'My Way'

It is the last day of Arlington's 2011 season and the crowds have already started to thin before the final race goes to post at 5:07 p.m.

On this crisp fall day, a few hundred people still remain, sitting bundled on the wooden benches at the track's paddock level, humming along to the familiar song piped from the grandstand's speakers -- "My Way."

The song -- and the atmosphere of the Sept. 25 closing day -- is a fitting tribute to Duchossois, the Barrington Hills mega-millionaire who still stands atop the industry at 90.

With his twinkling eyes and jovial demeanor, he is both tyrant and teddy bear, known for using his clout to get his way.

It was Duchossois who made the call to rebuild Arlington following a devastating fire in 1985, spending $200 million to build the gleaming white showplace.

It was Duchossois who threw a sort of two-year tantrum by closing Arlington in 1998 and '99 in response to casino expansion and lawmakers' subsequent refusal to financially protect the horse-racing industry.

It's Duchossois who notes, palm thumping, that he can veto installing lights at Arlington, after the Illinois Racing Board didn't give him the 2012 schedule he wanted. The proposal would also have taken revenue from Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero and has led that track's president to criticize Duchossois.

Illinois has too many thoroughbred race tracks, Duchossois counters. And he thinks his will be the one that survives.

Duchossois' plans for Arlington don't necessarily sit well with others. He doesn't seem to mind.

If the state approves slot machines at the track, Arlington plans to put them in a new facility that would be built adjacent to the grandstand.

Duchossois personally designed it that way.

Some members of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, with whom he's clashed, speculate that's because he imagines the racetrack's paddock will soon be padlocked for good.

Duchossois says that's not the case.

"I got in a lot of trouble with the horsemen," Duchossois said. "That's what they were thinking. ... But the horse player and the slot player are like oil and water. They don't mix."

'Self-preservation mode'

Former Arlington Park President and Churchill Downs executive Steve Sexton describes Duchossois' leadership style as a "relentless passion for excellence."

Hawthorne President Tim Carey views him as more of a bully.

Arlington's proposal to the racing board for 2012 would have done away with Hawthorne's spring racing meet so money made on simulcasting during that period could be used to increase Arlington's purses and offset the costs of installing lights for night racing.

But Carey said Arlington has hogged too many dates for too long. "They get May through September. They get the Kentucky Derby. They get Mother's Day. They get the Preakness. Fourth of July. Labor Day. What more does he want? He still wants more."

"As an industry we should be united," Carey says. "It shouldn't be about an individual or a racetrack. It should be about an industry. I don't think (Duchossois) is looking at it in that vein."

Sexton said each of the state's tracks is in "self-preservation mode."

"They're all competing at those (racing board) meetings," he said.

Duchossois says he isn't ready to reveal the track's plans to fight the racing board's decision, but it seems clear he doesn't consider that battle to be over.

Too many racetracks

While racing board figures in August put statewide revenues down 12.8 percent, Arlington Park's were up -- posting narrow 2011 gains over last year's betting totals. Arlington Park, Duchossois says, would survive if the legislation for slot machines didn't pass.

"Why wouldn't it?" he says.

Others, he predicts, will not.

With Arlington, Hawthorne and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville, there "isn't room" for three thoroughbred tracks in the state, he says.

"Times have changed and some racetracks didn't change and haven't changed and probably won't change, and they'll be out of business. It's just a matter of time," he said.

"The state of Illinois isn't big enough to have three tracks. The market isn't big enough. The horse population, you go back a few years and there were about 36,000 foals on the ground. This year, there are about 24,000. In three years there won't be enough horses to service all of the tracks."

Arlington may not survive, either, Rolling Meadows racehorse owner Rob Marcocchio fears.

Marcocchio sees "the game" -- the racing industry -- as "going toward six, seven, eight, nine major tracks around the country."

If Arlington isn't granted "the one-arm bandits," as Marcocchio calls the slot machines, or "something to supplement the purse structure … racing as we once knew it is gone. Racing's future in the state of Illinois will be depleted and definitely in jeopardy."

Duchossois has other plans.

He says Arlington is "endeavoring to make itself a social arrangement, not just sports," marketing to bring people of all ages and lifestyles through its doors to raise revenues.

With a change in management and a change in focus -- Arlington General Manager Tony Petrillo and Marketing Director Howard Sudberry are completing their first year in their respective roles -- Duchossois says Arlington has "made more progress this year than we have in the past seven or eight years."

Along with successes of the last year -- a more cohesive management, ramped-up marketing efforts and a number of partnerships with area schools and sports teams -- Duchossois also acknowledged some failures.

A controversial purse structure rule, in which any race with a field of six or fewer horses would run for just 85 percent of the listed purse money, drew the ire of some big-name owners -- most notably perpetual leading owner Frank Calabrese -- and will be eliminated next year, Duchossois says.

"We're going to change that. We were rewarding mediocrity," he said, noting "our quality of racing will be substantially improved next year."

Calabrese initially took his string of horses to Calder Racecourse in Miami Gardens, Fla., this summer and ended up running them all over the East Coast.

"I just don't want to die a loser," Calabrese said shortly before deciding not to return to Arlington. "I want to make money one year."

Duchossois says he doesn't miss Calabrese. Far from it.

"If he applied for a whole barn again would he get it? Oh no, he wouldn't get it," said Duchossois, unhappy that Calabrese was taking some of his horses that had done well in higher-caliber claiming races and dropping them down in class to run against horses that often didn't stand a chance against his stock.

"If he came back we would lose a lot of the other good people. When you start dropping down (horses in the claiming ranks), you get smaller fields because they don't want to run against him. The purse goes down, the wagering goes down. It's a losing proposition," Duchossois said.

Duchossois is also working to make the track more of an international scene, and he wants to bring the first 1-mile grass race to the United States.

But now, stymied on other revenue-raising fronts, that will be more difficult than he expected.

"We had been saying coming into this that September, October and November of this (upcoming) year are going to change the face of racing in Illinois," Duchossois said. "It's either going to become successful, or it's going to fail. It can't be the same, but it looks like it's working out that way. Unless something is done, it's going to fail."

Next year, he said, won't be the banner year that Arlington had originally hoped for.

He'll forge ahead, as he always has. Yet, he is, at times, growing weary.

"I'm getting too old for this."

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