Rozner: Million gives Arlington chance to shine again

  • Arlington Heights village president Tom Hayes reads a proclamation Saturday at Arlington Park in honor of Dick Duchossois as the chairman emeritus listens alongside his wife, Judi.

      Arlington Heights village president Tom Hayes reads a proclamation Saturday at Arlington Park in honor of Dick Duchossois as the chairman emeritus listens alongside his wife, Judi. Barry Rozner | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/5/2019 6:24 AM

As Dick Duchossois was celebrated at Arlington Park on Saturday afternoon, it was difficult to watch the chairman emeritus and not think back to what could have been.

After more than 20 years of fighting to get gambling legislation passed, then governor Pat Quinn twice vetoed bills that would have saved Illinois horse racing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At stake were as many as 50,000 jobs amid a billion-dollar industry.

There never was an explanation for why you could host slots at every Chinese restaurant, pizza place, gas station and store front in Illinois, but the most beautiful track in the country -- that has had regulated gambling for 90 years -- wasn't allowed the same.

One can only guess why.

So as breeders, trainers and jockeys took their horses and fled Illinois -- what had been one of the top racing states in the country -- for richer tracks that already had slots and better purses, Arlington has seen the product diminish each season.

Now Illinois politicians are patting themselves on the back for raising taxes, voting themselves a pay bump and slamming through a massive gambling package.

It remains to be seen whether it's too little, too late for Illinois horse racing, but it didn't stop the 97-year-old Duchossois from striking an optimistic tone Saturday.

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"I believe there will always be racing here," said Duchossois, who had been in New York the previous few days for his induction into the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame on Friday. "I don't think it's ever going to change, but it's not my decision to make. That's entirely up to Churchill Downs."

As for the future of ponies, Duchossois said, "Illinois horse racing is bound to improve because we'll have (slot) machines, but we have to go through the bill."

He then smiled and added, "The devil is always in the details."

As much as the state has tried its level best to ruin horse racing -- again, for reasons that stretch the imagination -- Arlington's physical plant remains a spectacular vision, and never more so than on Arlington Million Day.

It's on tap Saturday, along with the Beverly D and Secretariat, and Arlington's turf course will be the center of the horse racing universe, at least for one brilliant afternoon.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The week of the Million is something everyone here looks forward to," said Arlington president Tony Petrillo. "It's like the Super Bowl here."

But as soon as the day concludes, their attention will shift to what's next for the Local Oval.

"We'll focus immediately on launching sports betting here," Petrillo said. "There's a lot of factors to consider, with the size of the gaming bill and the many challenges that poses to us now.

"It's not the same as it was the last time a bill passed (in 2012) with the proliferation of video gaming terminals. The landscape has changed so much, so the folks at our (Churchill Downs) corporate headquarters are looking very carefully at what Arlington will look like in five years.

"I wish I had a crystal ball. I wish I could predict, but it's difficult to predict what Illinois will look like in five years.

"I absolutely believe Arlington can be what it was before, but it's a much more difficult hill to climb. If a bill would have been signed in 2011 or 2012, the landscape would be altogether different."

Even with gambling suddenly saturating Illinois, Petrillo is certain the track will survive and continue to be a summer destination for those in search of local entertainment.

"Arlington is always going to be a thriving facility," Petrillo said. "Mr. D has instilled principles here that are woven so deep within the organization that it will never leave.

"We'll always be a strong community partner and absolutely we'll still be here. This is a mainstay. The community is so dependent on Arlington Park. No matter what happens, there's a lot of people interested in ensuring it will be here a long time."

Also certain is that the 37th running of the Arlington Million on Saturday will showcase again a facility that's unmatched in horse racing.

It's a reminder of what once was great and -- if allowed -- could be again.

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