You Probably Don’t Care
By Patrick F. Cannon
I thought I’d write this week about something few people are concerned with – Thoroughbred horse racing. It’s hard to believe now, but it was once the most attended sport in America. That was the case in 1957, when I first attended the races at Washington Park in south suburban Homewood. With its sister track in north suburban Arlington Heights – now Arlington International — it made the Chicago area one of the major centers of racing in the country.
After Washington Park burned down in 1977, Arlington stood alone as Chicago’s preeminent track (both had been owned by the Lindheimer family). I won’t bore you with all the details (it involved bribing politicians), but the Lindheimer’s were forced to sell the track in 1968 to Gulf-Western, operators of New York’s Madison Square Garden, among other holdings. In 1983, it returned to local ownership when it was purchased by Richard Duchossois. In 1985, the original grandstand burned down; in 1989, the new grandstand opened. The track is now considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
Some of the great horses who have raced at Arlington include Citation, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser, Twilight Tear, John Henry, Round Table and Secretariat. Its Arlington Million was the first race in the world to offer that purse. This year, the purse has been reduced to $600,000.
Alas, in 2000, Duchossois sold it to Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), in a deal that made him the company’s largest stockholder. Once race tracks were the only place to legally wager in Illinois, but by then it had competition from the lottery and casinos; now you can place bets on just about any sporting event, and play the slots at your local tavern.
During most of the time they owned Arlington, CDI lobbied the state legislature to permit slots and other forms of gambling at the track, much as has been done successfully in other states. In the meantime, CDI bought Rivers Casino in DesPlaines. When the legislature finally passed a new gambling law in 2019, they declined to apply for a license, claiming the terms of the new law were unfavorable. The real reason was the track’s proximity to the Rivers Casino.
Then, a few weeks ago, they announced plans to put the property up for sale, saying it was now too valuable for horse racing, and should be developed for a “higher and better use.” The complex, 386 acres in total, sits in Arlington Heights, IL, one of the Chicago areas more prosperous suburbs. Arlington has promised to hold racing this year, and to find an appropriate place for its license. Since it was granted the license by the state, it doesn’t actually own it, so it’s a hollow gesture.
The only track left in the Chicago area is Hawthorne, owned for some 100 years by the Carey family (I went to grammar school with one of them, Judy). Unlike Arlington, they have applied for a gambling license and have plans to transform the track with a casino and more modern facilities generally. Currently, their purse structure is pathetic, even compared with tracks in Indiana, of all places. Their average purse is approximately $12,500 per race (on Saturday March 6). In New York, that average would be closer to $50,000. I checked on Gulfstream Park in Miami just yesterday and the average purse over 10 races was $37,500. You can imagine where owners and trainers with decent horses would rather race.
The decline in Illinois has led to a decline in the state’s breeding industry. Doubling of purses at a revitalized Hawthorne (and at Cahokia near St. Louis) would not only attract owners and trainers, but might revive breeding as well. What the Illinois Racing Board should do in the short term is tell CDI “thanks but no thanks” and award this year’s desirable Summer dates to Hawthorne as a reward for their commitment to the Chicago area. Obviously, CDI – which of course still runs the Kentucky Derby – now sees thoroughbred horse racing as a business instead of a sport. When selling widgets makes more money than the thrill of a photo finish, you can kiss the “greatest two minutes in sport” goodbye.
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon