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updated: 8/16/2014 10:28 PM

For a day, Arlington Park as great as ever

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  • Jockey Eriluis Vaz, aboard Hardest Core, blows a kiss skyward Skyward after winning the Arlington Million.

       Jockey Eriluis Vaz, aboard Hardest Core, blows a kiss skyward Skyward after winning the Arlington Million.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer


There was a time not that many years ago when every weekend looked like this.

Huge crowds, big fields, full cards and fat prices.

In other words, it was ideal for horse racing fans.

But another year has passed. Another Arlington Million concluded. Another racing season headed for the wire.

You just have to wonder how many are left at the palace known as Arlington International Racecourse.

"I don't know," said 92-year-old owner Dick Duchossois. "I won't have anything to say about whether it will be here or not be here. That's done by other people."

While the physical plant remains the best of any in the country, the product suffers and fans endure weak cards and soft prices.

There were eight races Friday. Eight races on a Friday of the biggest weekend of the season in Chicago. Eight races averaging barely eight horses per race. Eight races with the last one going off at 5:40 p.m., hours of daylight remaining and fans looking for more entertainment.

Horse racing in Illinois may not be dead, but it's on life support.

"We have met the enemy, and it is us," Duchossois said Saturday night. "To a great extent, it's the racetracks and the breeders and the horsemen. It's all of us all across the country.

"We are constantly talking about how bad things are instead of talking about what we can do to reverse it. It's the easiest thing in the world to complain. It's a lot harder to fix the problem."

You wouldn't know there were problems Saturday, when the local oval was filled to the brim with patrons and parties, celebrating the history of the best turf course known to man and beast.

More than 31,000 showed up to partake in the pageantry, filling every seat in the joint and by extension giving their fellow punters an opportunity to fill their pockets.

There were big upsets and huge payouts, including Hardest Core at 11-1 in the Million -- I don't know a human who picked it -- and an $892 exacta to finish the day.

But those days are few and far between anymore.

"As long as we keep doing the best we can as long as we can, we'll be making a contribution," Duchossois said. "Everyone is looking to cut costs. My philosophy is, 'How do you put money in to really market and promote?' There's only so much you can cut.

"We always talk about the trend that things are going down. We very seldom stop to see what's causing the trend and what we can do to correct it. I think it can be done in this industry."

So is horse racing on the road to fixing those problems?

"I can tell you more in a month," Duchossois said. "We'll know more then."

Duchossois is probably referring to the next Illinois racing dates meeting, at which much will be contested as the debate rages on.

In the meantime, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has killed a pair of gambling bills in the last few years that would have revitalized horse racing in the state, saving thousands of jobs, billions in revenue and keeping the game competitive here with the states that already have slots at racetracks.

A storefront with a liquor license or a casino masked as a deli can have slots, but a racetrack where gambling has been regulated since 1927 can't be trusted by the governor to make sure nothing untoward occurs.

Maybe he's never been to an OTB, but you get the feeling Quinn thinks Tony Soprano or Nicky Santoro is going to walk in and start busting heads.

"There's a number of things that can help," Duchossois said. "Slots would help."

But Duchossois sounds a conciliatory note when discussing the politicians' role in the downfall of racing, and wonders if it's already too late for slots to save racing.

The reality is horse racing -- once the top dog in gambling -- has fallen victim to the explosion of opportunities available to bettors. And while that's occurred, race tracks around the country -- not to mention horsemen, breeders, trainers and all involved -- have worked against each other, rather than trying to solve their problems as a single unit with one voice and purpose.

"What has to be done first is everyone understanding what the problem is, what started us down this slippery slope," Duchossois said. "We have to work together instead of working as individuals.

"We talk a lot, but you're not measured by what you say. You're measured by what you do. We are hoping that we can put all of our efforts into saving racing in Illinois and around the country."

At least on Saturday, Arlington Park was as glorious as ever, reminding us of what once was in Illinois.

"A beautiful day," Duchossois said, "and what a beautiful crowd."


•Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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