|Daily Racing Form|
Monday, July 31
Once again, Arlington returns
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
It was like having the doors padlocked on the Louvre, the lights darkened at Fenway Park, Carnegie Hall shuttered, Bloomingdales sold off. Something so cool never should have been shut down. But Arlington International Race Course, the $200 million facility brought to life by track chairman, Richard Duchossois, was losing the good fight against riverboat casinos, high taxes and an unsympathetic state government. On Oct. 10, 1997 Arlington ran what some thought would be its last race ever. What followed was 19 months of emptiness on the Chicago racing circuit, a hole that Sportsman's Park and Hawthorne couldn't possibly hope to fill.
It was a sad time, but all is forgiven and a lot has been forgotten. Glamorous Arlington is back. The track reopens this Sunday.
"I think everyone is very excited that we are back," Vice President of Racing and Operations Frank Gabriel Jr. said. "We have a different way of operating this facility and we're very proud of it. We try to be very customer oriented. Plus, everyone knows what we went through the last 2 1/2 years to open up again and is appreciative. I anticipate a very good meet."
The 2000 Arlington meet will consist of 103 racing programs and will conclude Sept. 30. So much is the same - a gorgeous plant, good racing - but so much is different. The backstretch, which had been decrepit and ramshackle before the 1997 shutdown, has undergone a multi-million dollar improvement. The grandstand has also been renovated and improved to the tune of about $10 million. The purse for the track's signature race, the Arlington Million, has been increased from $1 million to $2 million. And a new 20-by-40 foot LED video screen has been built in the infield to give fans a better look at the races.
Track officials are most proud of innovations that will make a day at the track more entertaining for the fan, especially newcomers. Fans can get in the game, if they so choose.
The Get In The Game program offers patrons a chance learn more about the parts of the sport that aren't always visible from the grandstand. Fans can do everything from watching a race with announcer John Dooley while he's making his call, to meeting with jockeys to discuss what it's like to thunder through the stretch and what sort of strategies are involved. There's also a course that teaches handicapping to beginners known simply as Racing 101.
"We find that on average people come here in groups of four to six and maybe only two or three of those people are horseplayers," explained Arlington
CEO Scott Mordell. "The non-horseplayers tend to get bored. We have to do something to entertain them and keep their interest. That improves
their chances of coming back and thinking it was a great day."
Arlington will begin with an average daily purse payout of $200,00 a day, which will increase to an estimated $275,000 a day during the July 12 to September 4 portion of the meet. The daily average purse payment hovered around $140,000 when Arlington closed in 1997. Nearly all the top trainers from the Chicago circuit will return and be joined by a quality collection of new faces. Elliott Walden, Steve Asmussen, Lynn Whiting, Dale Romans and Michael Stidham are among the out-of-town trainers who have taken out stalls for the Arlington meet.
Arlington International's reopening is the latest chapter in the rise and fall and rise again of one of the
Midwest's most historic racetracks. Then named Arlington Park, the track
opened for the first time in 1927. Track management made headlines in 1981 when it ran the first Arlington Million, at the time the only $1 million race in the sport. But four years later, the track was destroyed by fire. It would reopen after just a few weeks with tents and portable bleachers taking the place of the burned grandstand. There were two more "tent" meets before racing was suspended in 1988. A year later, Duchossois's $200 million palace reopened to rave reviews.
But in 1997, the track owner, battered by competition from the nearby riverboat casinos, decided to close the doors. Between 1991 and 1997 attendance dropped 40% and Duchossois, not able to get major concessions from state legislators, had seen enough.
It was not until the state began to make some meaningful changes in racing legislation that Duchossois was willing to take another shot. Arlington will pay lower taxes than ever this year and can look forward to a day when the riverboat casinos are not a menace but a financial contributor. Starting in 2001, 15 % of every dollar won by casino operators will be earmarked to support the state's racetracks, both harness and thoroughbred. Fifty percent of that will go toward purses and the other half will go to track operators. The racing industry estimates that it will net $45 million annually from the riverboats.
That's enough of a cushion that Arlington will be able to survive into the immediate future, but Mordell vows the track can and will do more to make the sport better and Arlington more profitable.
"There's a realistic sense of optimism around here, but nobody is ready to put the food on the table," he said. "There's plenty of competition in this marketplace. We've been given a great opportunity, but if racing can't package itself and create some organic growth and be more appealing to the marketplace as a whole, then we're all in trouble."
That, however, is a story for another day. Arlington International Race Course, a place with so much history and so much beauty, opens up Sunday. Welcome back, friend.
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