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updated: 8/11/2014 9:16 PM

Again, Million week comes with fear, appreciation

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  • Even Richard Duchossois has to wonder what will happen to Arlington International Racecourse after he is gone.

      Even Richard Duchossois has to wonder what will happen to Arlington International Racecourse after he is gone.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer


As has become customary, this Arlington Million week arrived with mixed emotions.

The weekend's International Festival of Racing is great with great horses and great fields and great purses and great crowds and great theater and great bonnets and overall great thoroughbred racing.

At the same time there always is an underlying concern that this Million might be the last at this track, or the next to last, or the first of the last few.

It's easy to take for granted that Arlington Park always will be around because its obit has been sitting in a desk drawer ready to be published seemingly forever.

But Richard Duchossois, who runs Arlington and is the largest single shareholder in parent Churchill Downs Inc., is 92.

Unless the landscape changes dramatically, the track is unlikely to outlive him by too many years.

In case you haven't heard -- and how could you not have -- horse racing is in trouble at Arlington International Racecourse, all around Illinois and throughout much of America.

Tracks need slot machines to compete with other gambling entities, but getting them is snagged in the same politics that hamstring the entire state on even more important issues.

No wonder Springfield seems light years away from Arlington Heights and thoroughfares Euclid Avenue, Wilke Road, Northwest Highway and Route 53 that border the track.

The sport appears to be bright and shiny on Arlington's premier racing days: opening weekend, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Fourth of July and, of course, Million weekend.

On those afternoons horse racing is everything it can be, with crowds up in the 30,000s.

Fans passing through turnstiles then can ignore the anxiety permeating Arlington Park and downright suffocating horsemen at other times during the summer.

The mood was captured this week in the outstanding article "Man Behind the Million" by Claire Novak, who grew up near Arlington and treats the track reverentially.

The piece is at once a positive profile of Duchossois and negative portrayal of the state of racing in Illinois.

Putting the two side by side raises the question that nobody wants to utter out loud: What happens to Arlington Park when Duchossois dies?

Even at his age, the fabled Mr. D still is younger than most of us born decades later, and he still has more energy and better intuition than everybody in both houses of the General Assembly combined.

Who knows how Duchossois would respond if confronted with the issue of his age in relation to the track's long-term viability?

I never had the nerve to ask him. Heck, I don't even like being asked about my age in relation to my golf game.

But rest assured that anyone associated with horse racing at Arlington Park is worried about the track's fate in the post-Duchossois era.

Arlington Park is Dick Duchossois' baby. Without him around, well, who knows what transpires?

I'm told the track loses considerable money every year and will continue to do so unless slots turn it into what is referred to in the industry as a racino.

Without Duchossois it's doubtful that Churchill Downs Inc. -- described now as a gaming company more than a racing company -- would keep covering Arlington Park's losses.

So while the track's future will appear to be promising this weekend, the future beyond that is year to year, if not month to month.

I'm glad I could write these sentiments early in the week because later they won't darken the International Festival of Racing, annually the suburbs' gaudiest sports showcase.

After the cluster of big races comes and goes, however, the downside of the mixed emotions will rear its ugly horse head again.

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