O'Donnell: Pay to play at Arlington Park this year? Don't bet on it

  • Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comArlington Park race track.

    Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comArlington Park race track.

  • Friday could be the final Opening Day at Arlington Park.

      Friday could be the final Opening Day at Arlington Park. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Updated 4/28/2021 3:46 PM

THE SPECTER OF AN OPENING DAY at Arlington Park was once so deliciously nefarious.

Naive goslings down on the apron breaking their virgin betting bones alongside aged burnouts in worn sneakers who long ago had cast their fates to the windows.


Upstairs, in The Classic Club and later The Million Room, the more privileged getting to watch older men in Pinky Lee sport coats and eventually Greg Norman golf shirts whiz away part of their modest fortunes on a daily basis.

Around the paddock, visitors eyeballing a floating band of human cutlery masquerading as jockeys and trainers and agents benefiting from the exchequers of esteem-challenged "horse owners."

As George C. Scott said in "Patton": "God help me but I love it so."

THIS WEEKEND, ALL COLOR IS OFF as the local civic drain begins what is likely its 92nd and final season.

That "Last Turn" isn't because of some random act of God.

Nor is it because the front stretch of the current 33-year-old facility has somehow been diminished as one of the most ornate racing emporiums on the planet.

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Instead, the death of Arlington Park is being dictated by an out-of-state cavern of greed doing business as Churchill Downs Inc.

As has been made perfectly clear to a remarkably passive Illinois citizenry, the "shareholder value" of CDI holdings trumps all other considerations in The Land o' Winkin'.

Properly run states, with properly aware and diligent residents, would run any imperious corporation dictating such arrogant execution out of Dodge before dusk.

But not Illinois.

And certainly not Cook County or the Village of Arlington Heights.

All officials instead are passively standing by as a wake that is 100 percent unnecessary begins at the fading local bier on Friday.

APPROPRIATELY CAST as the archangel of death in the pathetic tableau is CDI CEO Bill Carstanjen.

He's the self-righteous overseer who two years ago spit in the face of the Illinois legislature and the economy of the state by haughtily announcing that CDI would not implement newly legal supplemental gaming that would have saved and elevated Arlington.


No one -- not the governor, not any state representatives of consequence, not any of the people who assign licenses of privilege in Illinois -- effectively pushed back.

Now, while Carstanjen is wantonly murdering Arlington Park, his royal Louisville court retains a 61% interest in The Rivers Casino in Des Plaines and is solidly in the running for yet another license of privilege to own a new casino in Waukegan.

He also continues to imply that CDI may "relocate" a live horse racing operation in Illinois somewhere other than Arlington.

Implicit in that dictatorial posturing is the idea that Churchill somehow "owns" a license to conduct horse race meetings in Illinois.

It doesn't.

And, as a matter of policy, Gov. J.B. Pritzker should summon all of the gubernatorial command he can and announce that:

1) Churchill is no longer a candidate for the Waukegan license; and,

2) The next review toward renewal of CDI as majority owner of Rivers will be fair and complete and predicated upon the central point of how enhancing Carstanjen and Co. have been in acting on behalf of the greater good of the people of Illinois.

IT'S NOT HARD TO BUILD a case that the citizens of Illinois would be far better off if the day arrives as soon as possible when Churchill Downs Inc. no longer holds any license of privilege in the state.

The corporation brings absolutely nothing special to racing or gaming in Illinois and, in fact, has been an accelerant of abject diminishment.

In its own filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, CDI clearly professes that the two primary reasons it has been able to operate profitably in jurisdictions around the country are "reputation" and "geography."

It certainly has the geography in Illinois.

But as far as reputation, CDI in Illinois is somewhere north of Rod Blagojevich but well south of The Hubbard Cave.

In a perfect world, with an informed and mobilized citizenry, not one person would pay one penny toward any element of the overpriced farce to be run as the 2021 "racing season" at Arlington Park.

But addictions are hard to overcome for the lonely as is a venue for the nouveau riche to somehow get some kind of piddling public validation for their mildly noteworthy financial holdings.

So a numb cadre of dilettantes and saps and gaper's blockers and poltroons will pay nonsensical prices to get into "The Last Turn" at Euclid and Wilke this season.

Opening Day at AP was once deliciously nefarious.

This weekend, it is as easily overlooked as a snatch 'n grab by a remote midnight mugger.

And only to be cheered if Bill Carstanjen and Churchill Downs Inc. announce their departure from all state-privileged operations in Illinois.

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

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