'They killed it': Duchossois' son blames politicians, not Churchill, for Arlington Park's end
Amid the pageantry of the final Arlington Million Day -- a day to honor Dick Duchossois and his family for their contributions to horse racing -- Duchossois' son blamed not Arlington Park owner Churchill Downs Inc. but Illinois politicians for the planned destruction of the grand racing palace his father built.
Craig Duchossois, his father's longtime right-hand man in family business matters, called Saturday's tributes at the racetrack bittersweet and emotional after what he said has been the family's "enjoyable but challenging" journey in Illinois racing and politics. His father, Arlington Park's 99-year-old chairman emeritus, was at his Barrington Hills home, where he's spent most of his time since the onset of the pandemic.
"I have no faith in our government in Illinois at all, including Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker. Springfield is a bigger swamp than Washington, if that's possible," Craig Duchossois said during an exclusive interview with the Daily Herald from his family's grandstand suite.
Duchossois said Pritzker's 2019 massive gambling expansion that awarded long-sought slots and table games to racetracks like Arlington came "too late."
By then, Churchill Downs had already acquired a majority interest in nearby Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, and it soon declined to apply for the gambling positions at Arlington, which could have helped boost purse accounts for horse races.
"If they would've gotten their head out of the sand and done it 5 or 10 years earlier, whole different ballgame," Duchossois said. "Who knows what would have happened then. But at least we would've been given the chance to compete fairly, and they didn't allow that. And now they're saying Churchill is at fault? That just doesn't make any sense."
The Louisville-based corporation that merged with Arlington in 2000 -- when the Duchossois family became Churchill's largest shareholders -- put the 326-acre racetrack property in Arlington Heights up for sale last February.
The elder Duchossois retired from the Churchill board of directors in April 2019, and the son stepped down a year before that. Both are still considered emeritus directors by the corporation and have continued to be staunch defenders of the company's leadership and business decisions.
Craig Duchossois said internal discussions about an eventual sale and redevelopment of the Arlington Park land came at a board meeting years ago.
"They said, 'Guys, Arlington is an underutilized asset, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to deal with that. And Dad knew that. So it wasn't a surprise," he said. "They tried to be very respectful and empathetic. And he appreciated it, and I really respected the way they treated the family in a difficult situation."
The younger Duchossois said his father is emotional over the final Million Day, as well as the eventual closure of Arlington Park on Sept. 25. But father and son also say they understand business.
"To end up having the horsemen say you owe it to us to sell it to someone that'll keep it alive -- that's where (Churchill's) fiduciary responsibility comes into play," Craig Duchossois said. "They don't owe anything to anyone other than to do the right thing, which I am fairly confident they want to do what's right for Arlington, the shareholders and whoever the buyer may be. That's the juggling act that I think they'll probably do very nicely."
Craig Duchossois on Saturday reserved his most pointed criticism for former Gov. Jim Edgar and House Speaker Mike Madigan, accusing them of "killing" racing in Illinois.
Dick Duchossois had lobbied Springfield lawmakers in the 1990s for legislation to make racetracks more competitive amid other forms of gambling, from the lottery to riverboats. He famously shut down the track in 1998 and 1999, before the merger with Churchill.
"Not just our track. Look at the tracks that are still alive and look at their ability to attract horses. We went from one of the top quality facilities in terms of horses to not even on the map anymore. Why couldn't they see what was happening around Illinois and adapt?" Craig Duchossois said.
"My father's strategy to Springfield was just put our industry on a level playing field so that we can have the same level of purses to attract quality horses. And they absolutely refused to. Madigan was afraid because it would be perceived as helping out someone that had a strong balance sheet. Guess who creates the jobs? Someone that's got a strong balance sheet."
"They killed it."