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updated: 6/7/2015 10:41 PM

Imrem: American Pharoah no savior for Arlington

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  • Victor Espinoza reacts after crossing the finish line with American Pharoah to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

    Victor Espinoza reacts after crossing the finish line with American Pharoah to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
    Associated Press


Horse racing's bright new future arrived with rain and overcast skies Sunday at Arlington Park.

The sport's rousing comeback will have to wait for a while before the impact of American Pharoah's victory in Saturday's Belmont Stakes gains traction.

If it ever does.

More likely, the first Triple Crown victory in 37 years was a mere moment more than the big moment.

Baseball had the Sosa-McGwire home run race trigger its revival a few years after the World Series was canceled.

The drama lasted every day for months in 1998 and culminated in Mark McGwire breaking Roger Maris' single-season homer record.

If American Pharoah could race every day until October, from New York to California and in Illinois in between ... well, maybe that would grow the interest in horse racing that has been dwindling the past few decades.

I don't know what I was expecting Sunday afternoon on the way to Arlington Park: traffic jams maybe, full parking lots, long lines at the gates and the betting windows.

No, American Pharoah's achievement didn't lead to much of any of that.

It was just another day at the races, less so because the weather forecast discouraged customers from attending.

"It's kind of dead," was the way one usher put it.

I stayed for only three races, so maybe the crowd was late arriving. Or maybe not.

If American Pharoah provided any bump it came in the sale of a few $25 T-shirts and caps with his name on it in the Level 1 gift shop.

The track wasn't dead, but it wasn't alive either. The crowd was small, much of it wearing purple and white on Northwestern University Day.

(Yes, I wore my Illini cap just to remind them that some of us are still around.)

As usual, Arlington's patrons enjoyed a good time. It's difficult to have a bad time out there even if you don't cash a single ticket all day.

That's the mystery: not enough of Chicagoland's 9 million residents take advantage of this terrific facility and entertaining sport.

In fact, not enough Americans go to racetracks the way they did when the sport was in the mainstream.

Now horse racing is considered too slow for a fast-paced generation. Now there are casinos spread around the Chicago area to draw gamblers away. Now a big chunk of racing's graying fan base has passed on.

The sport has regressed to a point where not even a superstar like American Pharoah is enough to single-hoofedly bring back the glory days.

This horse can't change much around here unless he is elected to the General Assembly and helps pass a bill permitting racetracks to have slot machines.

In a way, Arlington Park's small crowds, small race fields and small purses are the sport's only chance for salvation in Illinois.

Only dire circumstances will give the sport a chance to mix with slots and generate enough revenue to survive.

The more dire, the less chance politicians and the public can ignore that Arlington Park is in danger of disappearing as soon as next year.

We have heard that before, of course, but drums keep beating louder and louder that Churchill Downs, Arlington's parent company, is more interested in operating racinos than racetracks.

Not even a horse as magnificent, successful and historic as American Pharoah can do much about that.

Slot machines might not be the answer either, but they seem to be the best last resort anyone can think of to part the clouds hovering over the sport.

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