Duchossois: It's not over for Arlington until the legislature says it's over

Did the death knell grow louder for Arlington Park on Wednesday?

Or was it instead some high-stakes chin music served up by management of Churchill Downs Inc. toward Illinois state legislators about the future of the teetering local oval?

There is no equivocation about the core message - both overt and more nuanced - from Bill Carstanjen, the extraordinarily nimble CEO of CDI:

The Louisville-based corporation has set Arlington on a precarious path toward closure.

CDI stated an intent to conduct live racing at AP only through the 2020 and 2021 seasons, citing a burden of purse contributions at an unacceptable "tax rate" as the primary reason for its decision to not apply for table and video gambling with the Illinois Gaming Board.

Horsemen, track employees and more devoted fans expressed extreme chagrin at the CDI announcement.

But Dick Duchossois, the chairman emeritus who, by his own admission, is watching the unfolding theatrics from a deck chair, noted wiggle room in Carstanjen's ominous words.

"Churchill Downs Incorporated will not close Arlington Park," the 97-year-old industrialist said.

"The Illinois state legislature will close Arlington Park. Only its members can change things.

"Anyone who is concerned about the future of Arlington Park should be writing their state legislators before the fall veto session demanding that changes be made (to the Illinois Gaming Act enacted in June) that enable the corporation and the racetrack to compete under fair circumstance moving forward in Illinois."

Duchossois - who did not stand for re-election to the CDI board of directors earlier this year after a 19-year tenure - insisted he had "nothing to do" with Carstanjen's announcement.

But he also lauded the decision-making of both Carstanjen and Bill Mudd, the president and COO of CDI.

"The two Bills have yet to make a wrong decision," Duchossois said. "They serve the best interests of the corporation and its shareholders and they have done a fantastic job in that sense."

Some astute industry observers note CDI's sequencing regarding the closing of Hollywood Park as a potential indicator of the fate that awaits Arlington Park.

Churchill, then still primarily a horse racing company, bought the 61-year-old suburban Los Angeles track with casino for $140 million in 1999.

Six years later - the year Carstanjen joined CDI - the corporation sold the 260-acre site to a California land development firm with the stipulation that live racing continue "for at least three years."

Racing actually hung on at Hollywood until 2013, when president Jack Liebau announced its closing at year's end, saying that the land, "Now simply has a higher and better purpose."

That higher and better purpose has morphed into what will be the home of the NFL's Rams and Chargers beginning next season - the Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park.

The facility has a reported construction cost of $4.9 billion and is a component of what is referred to as "a neighborhood development" centered on the land that was once Hollywood Park.

In Illinois, there is no question that the Carstanjen-driven marriage of CDI to power broker Neil Bluhm and his Rivers Casino in Des Plaines last autumn has also accelerated days of decision for Arlington.

Rivers is the state's most profitable gaming emporium. The CDI/Rivers combine is a finalist for a new casino license in Waukegan.

And full table and video gambling at Arlington would give CDI three "licenses of privilege" within a compact 25-mile radius.

What remains unknown is how CDI's declination of the full supplemental gaming license at AP will play with the state gaming board if it is asked to approve CDI/Rivers as the licensee for the Waukegan casino.

But, according to Frank Calabrese, AP's most successful horse owner of the new millennium and a significant shareholder in CDI: "Arlington Park is dead and thoroughbred racing in Illinois isn't far behind.

"Bill Carstanjen is a genius. He and his people recognized that there is simply too much gaming in the state now and a horse race track the size of Arlington could never stand on its own again."

Duchossois - who was the primary financier of the four-partner purchase of the track from Gulf & Western in 1983 and has been its primary public face since "The Miracle Million" of 1985 - sees things from a slightly different point of view:

"Bill Carstanjen and Bill Mudd will do what's best for the corporation, and that's the way it should be.

"I'm an observer, no longer an active participant. I have given my heart and soul to Arlington Park for those 36 years, although sometimes it seems like only 20.

"And I am fully prepared for whatever is next."

  Horses take off during the 37th running of the Arlington Million earlier this month. Steve Lundy/
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