O'Donnell: CDI, gaming puzzles in Illinois much more interesting than Arlington Million

WHEN THEY RAN the first Arlington Million in 1981, it was a grand international event.

NBC Sports sent an A-list crew headed by Dick Enberg and the chase-fevered Pete Axthelm.

Media from four continents were credentialed.

The great gelding John Henry did his part, making a head-bobbing finish with 40-1 shot The Bart close enough so that placing judges could say he won.

They will run the 37th Million on Saturday at a very different Arlington Park.

As a horse race, it will pack all the wallop of a park district swim meet.

As backdrop for some extremely fluid action involving track owner Churchill Downs Inc. and the rapidly expanding gaming topography of the state of Illinois, it's an Erle Stanley Gardner book cover.

Some say Arlington is for sale.

CDI management says it isn't.

Some say an extremely well-resourced regional businessman has a few hundred million dollars to buy the track within the month.

He — requesting anonymity for the time being — says: “Not true. But, if a group comes together, I want a seat at the table to at least listen to what's going on.”

On a quarterly earnings conference call last week, CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen spoke with great vigor about his company's new majority ownership of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

He spoke in much more cautioned cadence about CDI's future plans for Arlington Park.

There's a deep underpinning for that:

For once during his brilliant career as a profit-producing wizard at CDI, Carstanjen was caught off-guard.

That happened earlier this summer when first-year Gov. J.B. Pritzker bing-bang-boomed legislation through normally calcified Springfield greatly expanding gaming in the state.

“Ten months ago,” said one crisply informed observer, “CDI had nothing for sure in Illinois other than a failing racetrack.

“Now, they have 62 percent of the state's most profitable casino (Rivers), an option for sports, table and video gaming at Arlington and will likely be a leading bidder on the new casino in Waukegan.”

What is a 50-year-old “boy whiz” to do?

Carstanjen will almost certainly do three things:

• Remain remarkably nimble, pragmatic and bottom-line driven;

• Continue to view the midterm future of Arlington Park with zero emotion; and,

• Continue to show the utmost respect to 97-year-old Dick Duchossois.

“Without Mr. Duchossois,” Carstanjen — once an acolyte of Bob Wright at General Electric — reportedly has told associates again and again, “I don't have this job.”

That's one reason he has steadfastly declined to upgrade some cringingly weak management in Duchossois's teetering domain.

That, many believe, is also why Arlington will never be sold during the lifetime of Duchossois without the explicit OK of “Mr. D” and appropriate family members.

Managements at both Arlington and southwest suburban Hawthorne have until August 27 to pay a $300,000 one-time fee to the state for the right to offer expanded on-site gaming.

Hawthorne is deep in a more complete process. The track will not hold a spring thoroughbred meet next year to expedite renovation of new gaming areas.

The Stickney oval is expected to open its casino and sportsbook no later than June 1.

CDI/Arlington, meanwhile, continues to display restraint, in part because it is unlikely that it will allow customer cannibalization of Rivers Casino, a mere 9 miles from AP.

Since the August 27 deadline is ironclad, CDI/AP is expected to pay the fee — and then see what the fall legislative session may bring.

In the meantime, they'll run a race still called “The Arlington Million” on Saturday.

As if it really matters.

STREET-BEATIN': It must have been Silly String for the troops and liver for the cats as hopeless ESPN AM-1000 leapfrogged all the way up to No. 25 in the 30-station Nielsens released for Chicago radio this week. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels may still play ESPN Audio rollovers Traug Keller and Jim Pastor in the movie … Adam Amin and Jim Miller will call the Bears preseason rippler vs. visiting Carolina Thursday (Fox, 7 p.m.). Amin (Addison Trail High, Class of '04) has drilled through much as his career continues to ascend, from filling in on Bulls broadcasts last season to calling the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN … Since the discussion has gone public — so it obviously needs another opinion — yes, Steve Stone is a much more fluid broadcaster this season. That's because Jason Benetti is an excellent setup man and sharing a booth with Hawk Harrelson is like being lubed into a window seat in economy on a transcontinental flight out of Newark next to Chris Christie … Turner has thankfully announced that it will be ditching its uneven “Players Only” NBA telecasts. The only one of the breed who consistently touched clever was the versatile Brent Barry, who's away from the TV game and in his second season as VP / basketball ops for San Antonio … Now it's Connor McKnight who sounds like he's trying to up his game to play through the rotunda at WSCR 670-AM. And who's on the hotter seat at the Cubs-driven calf — Dan McNeil or Dan Bernstein? … Dandy that the sandboxers manning The Speed Research Dept. at USA Today anointed Mike Ditka's Super Bowl Bears as “The Greatest NFL Team of All Time.” But not a mention of any of Paul Brown's Cleveland teams in the Top 20? They were only the most innovative group in the history of the game … And Palatine native Sir Walter Ruston, on the most leaky vineline at Wrigley Field, asked: “How soon until the Cubs start advertising for bullpen help on Indeed?”

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at

On a quarterly earnings conference call last week, CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen spoke with great vigor about his company's new majority ownership of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. But he spoke in much more cautioned cadence about CDI's future plans for Arlington Park. Daily Herald file photo
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