ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Arlington Park might look as healthy as ever on Saturday. The Arlington Million is expected to draw around 30,000 spectators to the old track in suburban Chicago to take in its marquee event.
Yet behind the scenes, a different kind of race is unfolding. Actually, it's a fight — a fight for financial survival. Officials for Arlington Park and its parent company, Louisville-based Churchill Downs Inc. say the future of the track and the industry is grim unless alternate forms of gambling are approved.
The problem is the track is only "marginally profitable," said Arlington Park president Roy Arnold. And if the revenue drops, "it's just simply not realistic to believe that shareholders would continue to support expending resources in Illinois with no prospect of a return."
Shuttering the 83-year-old track is not a consideration at this point, nor is selling it, but officials say gambling is necessary for survival not only of the track but racing as a whole in Illinois.
Last spring, proposed legislation that would have legalized slot machines at Illinois racetracks stalled amid opposition from riverboat casinos and anti-gambling lobbyists along with some loose ends that needed to be tied up. Arnold thinks the industry has the votes in the state Assembly and can get enough in the state Senate to get approval this fall after lawmakers reconvene.
But if not, how long can Arlington last?
In June, Churchill Downs CEO Bob Evans indicated Arlington Park's future was in doubt.
Two of the company's four tracks — Calder Casino & Race Course near Miami and Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans — offer other forms gambling. Arlington Park and Churchill Downs, whose parent company has been fighting for expanded gambling in Kentucky, do not.
Arnold pointed out that while Churchill Downs doesn't offer other forms of gambling, it hosts the Kentucky Derby and that provides enough financial support to get that track through the year.
Arlington, however, has neither a Triple Crown race nor the slots.
What it has is a long history that dates back to when Joe Bollero rode Luxembourg to victory in the first race on Oct. 13, 1927. It survived the Depression and World War II, and began hosting the world's first million-dollar race — the Arlington Million — in 1981. Bill Shoemaker led John Henry to victory that year, but there have been difficulties along the way.
In the 1990s, Arnold said, the state delivered an inadvertent blow by allowing riverboat casinos, and Arlington wound up closing for two years following the 1997 season before merging with Churchill Downs.