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updated: 8/7/2017 7:21 PM

Rozner: Illinois bumbles while horse racing crumbles

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  • With jockey Daniel Alexander Tudhope up, Mondialiste wins Arlington Million XXXIV last year at Arlington Park.

    With jockey Daniel Alexander Tudhope up, Mondialiste wins Arlington Million XXXIV last year at Arlington Park.
    Four footed fotos


When John Henry defeated The Bart in the inaugural running of the Arlington Million in 1981 -- a result some of us still refuse to acknowledge, if you'll pardon the digression -- it was a monumental event for horse racing.

It was the first million-dollar purse, there was spectacular international presence on and off the track, and the horse racing world flocked to Chicago for a race that would be televised internationally.

With the 35th edition set to run Saturday at Arlington Park, it's fair to wonder how many more the Local Oval has in store for patrons who worry about the future of Illinois horse racing.

What was once a billion-dollar industry in Illinois -- encompassing the tracks, breeders, horsemen and agribusiness that supports racing in so many ways -- is shrinking by the day as neighboring states take advantage of the disaster that is Illinois politics.

"We're very concerned about horse racing in this state. It's very, very fragile right now," said Arlington Park general manager Tony Petrillo. "It's on the brink of destruction."

It took decades to create a gambling bill, and when the state managed to get a pair of bills passed, former Governor Pat Quinn inexplicably vetoed both.

Already in significant trouble because surrounding states have casinos at their racetracks, Illinois horse racing quickly began to collapse.

"The states that have gaming are taking advantage of us," Petrillo said. "Owners, breeders and trainers are leaving Illinois in droves.

"We have a historic low number of horses on the backstretch as all those folks leave for the states that have slots and table games at their facilities.

"They can afford to make their purses twice as big or three times as big, so what would you expect people to do if you can't earn enough to keep a horse or breed a horse in Illinois?

"They're leaving Illinois for Iowa and Indiana and Minnesota and Ohio. We used to be No. 4 in the country. Now, we're down around No. 28 or 30."

There's currently a senate bill that would provide for slots at the tracks and a house amendment that allows for the tracks to bring in table games, just as would the new casinos in the senate bill.

Of course, this is Illinois where politicians guarantee higher taxes and the flight of jobs, businesses and residents to somewhere less dysfunctional.

And with every passing day, horse racing in the state is closer to the end.

"It's like someone pulled the plug and we're going down the drain," Petrillo said. "We're barely hanging on as an industry.

"We had two bills passed and vetoed and that really hurt a lot of people. A lot of jobs were lost and especially at the lower income levels. It really needs to be addressed because it's been devastating for so many who need the income.

"Hopefully, our legislative leaders will get together and recognize the financial importance of this industry."

Horse racing is not looking for a handout. It's not looking for a special deal. It's not looking for any favors.

It merely wants a level playing field.

It wants the ability to compete with casinos in Illinois and compete with racetracks in other states that already have casinos and are crushing Illinois horse racing.

As usual, Illinois is far behind the times and the delay in getting something done is killing a business and all the jobs that go with it, not to mention the loss of jobs created by new casino construction.

In the meantime, tracks in Illinois have gone under, a couple more are hanging on by a thread. and Arlington's parent company won't be patient for many more years.

So how many more Millions will there be at Arlington?

"Maybe five or six more? I hope. I don't know," Petrillo said. "We're lucky to be part of a bigger company (Churchill Downs Inc.) and have financial backing, but they have to answer to shareholders and the last seven or eight years the investment doesn't look so good on paper anymore.

"At some point in time here, investors and activists will start looking at this property as having other uses more sustainable than horse racing."

So while horse racing crumbles, Illinois bumbles and neighboring states steal revenue and jobs.

A game that was once so great is nearing the end, and if something isn't done soon it will most certainly come to an end.

One more reason to get to Arlington Saturday and take part in a great event.

Before it's gone forever.

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

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