O'Donnell: 4th and longing at empty Arlington -- but group is chasing a lease to race in 2023

  • The sun sets Sept. 25, 2001, on the final day of horse racing at Arlington Park.

    The sun sets Sept. 25, 2001, on the final day of horse racing at Arlington Park. Daily Herald File Photo

 
Updated 6/29/2022 2:41 PM

A FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND at Arlington Park once meant energy, excitement and anticipation.

"And all them 'chiropractics' up in the sky," as malaprop-prone TV jockey Gerry Gallitano once put it, attempting to mimic Phil Georgeff's use of the word "pyrotechnics."

 

But now, Chris Block -- the veteran trainer who is in his first term as president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association -- uses very different key words to describe the funereal local bone yard:

"Bleak ... sad ... depressing."

"I get feelings of depression anytime I drive past it on Northwest Highway or (Route) 53," said Block, a longtime Northwest suburbanite. "I try not taking those routes.

"There is no overwhelming reason why we couldn't be racing there right now. None. The Bears could be doing all necessary due diligence around a live meet. And if their deal to buy it blows up, our continuity and the economic well-being of so many people would be intact."

BUT IS THERE THE FAINTEST GLIMMER of hope on the stark Arlington horizon?

The Daily Herald has learned that a group of regional businessmen is again attempting to solicit senior management at Churchill Downs Inc. for a lease to race at AP in 2023.

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The chances of the initiative succeeding appear to be about as good as Liechtenstein landing the first man on Jupiter.

But the extremely well-resourced association is trying to appeal to the sense of enhanced imaging for the properly maligned CDI as CEO Bunker Bill Carstanjen and plotters fine-tune their next profit-munching move in Illinois.

WITH INSISTENCE ON ANONYMITY, a point person for the hopeful tenants said: "A profitable meet could have been run at Arlington this year. A profitable meet could be run again next year and again in 2024. It's not that hard.

"That's even if the Bears successfully close on their purchase. They say the deal may close early next year. That means the first shovel won't be turned until 2024 or so."

The group remains baffled that Churchill Inc. did not race this season despite turning profits on pared-down meets in 2020 and 2021.

The point man also speculated the primary motivator behind CDI's decision had to be some degree of animus from some influencer toward the horsemen and thoroughbred racing fans of Illinois.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBILITY of the transfer in ownership of the 326 acres from CDI to the Bears next year, any lease to race would have to be constructed so it too transfers landlord status to the Bears for 2023.

But that would also mean an instant incremental profit to George McCaskey and Co. against their reported purchase price of $197.2 million.

Dates applications for 2023 are due at the Illinois Racing Board at the end of July. No application can be considered unless a potential operator either owns or has a lease for a track in the state.

AS IT IS, WITH ARLINGTON DORMANT, thoroughbred racing in the Chicago area has been pushed to death's paddock.

The game is taking an enormous hit at Hawthorne this week. The Southwest suburban merry-go-round ended its brief spring meet for an 11-week run of harness racing that extends through mid-September.

T-bred racing is not scheduled to resume at HAW until Sept. 22.

IN THE INTERIM, surviving stables are being forced to up 'n git for an array of operating tracks where trainers hope to remain competitive.

Block and "Low Return" Larry Rivelli are headed for lush Colonial Downs in Virginia, where daily purses will average close to $600,000. That's far above Hawthorne's $190,000, but also a much more challenging standard of racing.

Brittany Vanden Berg and Lalo "El Jefe" Rodriguez have targeted Ellis Park in Kentucky. Patti Miller and Terry Young are moving to Canterbury Park in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Horseshoe Indianapolis -- under the direction of Arlington-spawned racing secretary Chris Polzin -- is accepting race-day ship-ins only because of a strong purse structure and full stalls. Polzin made that clear to horsemen last winter and among the more prominent from Chicago who made the full-time commitment was Michele Boyce.

OTHER CHICAGOANS WILL FAN OUT to lesser posts o' call such as Downstate FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing (formerly Fairmount Park) in Collinsville or Prairie Meadows in suburban Des Moines.

Close to 300 horses will remain stabled on the Hawthorne backstretch, according to Block. During the harness meet, they cannot train on the main track and are limited to mock jogs in front of shedrows or on a one-eighth mile oval inside of a barn.

"It's awful," Block said. "We have been running for a reduced purse gross at Hawthorne because of fewer racing days. Now we have to take on the additional expenses of moving staff, horses and equipment to tracks where we don't know how competitive we'll be.

"And Arlington Park, in all of its splendor and glory, will sit there empty and dying on what was once one of the greatest racing holidays in the country."

It's enough to make even them "chiropractics" up in the sky cry.

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

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