This time, slots at Arlington might be happen

Updated 8/19/2010 5:12 AM

Roy Arnold was a 30-year career Marine.

He is not the type to give up, or admit the end is near.


But the Arlington Park president has fought the good fight for the better part of five years, and he knows now after meeting into the night Tuesday with state legislators that Illinois racing has reached a tipping point.

Arnold says the talks this week regarding slots at the racetracks have all been positive, and he believes there will be a vote in veto session sometime after the November elections.

That is something very different from what we're accustomed to hearing, it's big news for Illinois racing, and it's why Arnold is cautiously optimistic it's a vote that will end well for Illinois racetracks.

However, if there is no vote, or if the bill is defeated and the message is that slots are never going to happen, Arnold is certain it will mark the end of Illinois' billion-dollar horse racing industry.

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Arlington Park won't be the first to close its doors, and it won't be next year, but make no mistake about it: Arlington Park will shut down within a couple years, and the abandoned hotel that sits adjacent to the oval will be nothing compared to the sight of a vacant racing palace.

"It's not an easy thing to confront, and you don't want to admit defeat, but this is basic economics," Arnold said Wednesday. "If you can't compete with states next door because they've enacted legislation to operate gaming at racetracks, and (they) can outspend you 2-to-1 on purses, it's difficult to see how this is a viable business.

"This has never been boats vs. racetracks in Illinois, and we've tried hard to educate legislators on both sides of the aisle on this.

"The real issue is our neighboring states are taking advantage of us not being able to compete with them, and we're losing racing to those states that are aggressively marketing against us.

"What's different this time is this bill is a good, clean bill that doesn't expand gambling and addresses capital construction, creating jobs short-term and long-term, and money for education, and we've gotten nothing but positive response from the unions, the horsemen and the legislators."


If this one doesn't work, however, Arnold believes Illinois tracks will begin to limit their losses and start closing up within a year.

"By the time the Million is over this weekend, we'll have had more than 600,000 fans come through the doors," Arnold said. "On track, we're doing OK, but the problem is the product we send out across the country for simulcast is deteriorating, and the result is we continue to reduce racing days to try to increase purses and make the product better.

"But as we race fewer days, horsemen choose to race in other states, and employees have to look for work elsewhere.

"We don't want to reduce racing, but it's the only way to provide a competitive product. Then, you look at the numbers and this is a huge facility, and you can't survive operating only a couple days a week.

"We've done all we can do. We're out of options. It's simple economics."

Arnold says the bill will have the votes in the state House. As for the Senate, after meeting with Illinois state Senate president John Cullerton this week, he understands why Cullerton didn't call the bill to vote in the spring session.

"He said he wanted a better bill that would get more support and allow him to get the bill called in veto session," Arnold said. "He's going to try to help us. It was all very positive, so we think we'll have the votes in the Senate now, too."

If it really happens this time, Arnold said Arlington could be licensed within six months and have a temporary slots facility sometime in 2011, which would have a direct and positive impact on the race card in 2012.

A permanent building worth about $100 million could be ready by late 2012 or early 2013, creating jobs and tax revenue.

That would mean immediate investment in Illinois horse racing worth hundreds of millions, not to mention the Northwest suburban and state economies, which would see new business investment and the deserted hotel next to Arlington have serious value.

"If you're a developer, I believe it would be a good time to expand in this area or open a new business," Arnold said. "It's a complete game-changer for us and for Arlington Heights and the surrounding communities and businesses.''

So this is finally it? After all these years, no more false starts and promises? It's yes or no?

"I hate to put it that way because it's not in my nature, but I don't know that there are any roads left to take, any avenues left to explore," Arnold said. "I do feel that we have a good bill this time, we'll get a vote called, and we'll have the votes.

"This time, I really am optimistic."

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