TrackNotes: Arlington's Amber Alert

There's a really tired old hook about something dying from a thousand cuts.

It would be easy to beat that rug after Churchill Downs Incorporated's announcement that it has put the land underneath Arlington Park up for sale.

But this is the result of at least 21 years of torturous murder sadistically carried out by executioners Richard L. Duchossois and the muscle of a faceless corporation that thrives and cackles on doing just this kind of thing. Corporations always get away with murder of all types in America. Don't kid yourself.

This announcement is not really news. Mercenary hitman CEO William C. Carstanjen, the General Electric exile personally propped up by quality stock performance of a company that has declared it doesn't really care for horse racing - but shamelessly exploits the name - and bullshits that it ever did, basically announced it last summer, when he said the land has "a higher and better purpose." He lives in Kentucky, OK?

With everything going on and now this, my Mason-Dixon line has migrated up to 138th Street.

Don't fall for Carstanjen's lyin' lie, right out of the Trump Kitchens Lying Cookbook for Liars, that CDI will use its Arlington license to build another racetrack somewhere else in Illinois. Don't even entertain any particulars of that question, because CDI is not interested in horse racing! Also, I've confirmed with the Illinois Racing Board that Arlington's license is not "transferrable to another location." And even if someone tried to buy Arlington to keep the racing and a casino there, which CDI will never allow, licenses would need reapplication.

Because CDI has no interest in horse racing, when Illinois gaming was expanded to include more casinos and casinos at race tracks, Arlington did not even apply for its Arlington license. CDI cried foul on "taxation." While that included taxation on racing, CDI also lumped under its "taxation" umbrella the requirement that Arlington divert a portion of casino revenue back into racing purses. That's how it works at every other racino around.

It has put its everything into Rivers Casino, DesPlaines, recently announcing an expansion project there. Did it need state approval for that?

For what it's worth, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association made a blunt, inclusive statement about CDI's announcement. Also, a spokesperson for Gov. J.B. Pritzker made a cryptic statement about the announcement: "While we are awaiting details on Churchill Downs' plans to maintain horse racing in Illinois, the administration will work with all stakeholders to develop an appropriate solution. We remain committed to ensuring a strong racing industry in our state." To some degree, the expansion of Illinois was tied into revenues for capital projects.

No matter what, I would suggest rejecting the hell out of CDI's bid for the Waukegan casino license. And I would pass emergency legislation that every dollar, including recapture, that whiffs past Arlington be devoted to purses in this final meet.

While admitting I'm about sick of writing about inevitable tragedy, there is other stinginess CDI is happy to engage in, which can be found in the archives.

But the slow and steady asphyxiation of racing at a track that has no physical equal in the world began in 2000, when Duchossois came back from a two year temper-tantrum closure and immediately sold the track, for a majority stake in the company, to CDI.

Is this a good time to point out how Duchossois has pretty much sold off those shares, at a higher price of course, but still maintains a healthy position, and has done it on the backs of the people and the game he so strongly professes to love?

If I hear one goddamned time more about how St. Dickie rose Arlington from the ashes of the catastrophic 1985 fire, my screams might be loud enough for you to get an Amber Alert on your phone. I'm tired of it!

This is our truth. The quality of racing has been dismal and insulting since that sellout. The pinkie pointers will argue that the only real racing is turf racing, like in Europe. But the fact remains that dirt racing is the name of the game in America and brings with it the superstars, top jocks, grand moments, legendary performances and: television coverage.

How intelligent has it been for Dickie D(oo) and his Don'ts to take Arlington Park off the radar of the American racing scene by concentrating on turf racing, for one damned day of the year?! And with Arlington possessing one of the finest turf courses in the world, not using it for more than half the meet until the Arlington Million is over. Duchossois and Arlington surrendered any hope of dirt prominence, even to complement the turf. So Chicago. Just give up.

In fact, there have been many years when Arlington racing wasn't even shown, even in replays, by horse racing network TVG. Arlington had to buy time on WGN to get even local coverage of the Million. It gets network coverage now because the Million, Beverly D. and Secretariat have Breeders' Cup implications. Supposedly.

It's not that The Million has been a bad race, but only two of its winners, Bricks and Mortar (2019) and Little Mike (2012) have gone on to win the Breeders' Cup Turf. Again, one more ounce of milk and honey over Duchossois running the first million-dollar race, Amber Alert and air raid sirens.

Arlington is also an outlier with its artificial PolyTrack surface on its world-class main track layout. That came about in 2007 as Arlington, either incapable or unwilling to spend the money, failed to maintain its dirt track, especially on the last turn, and horses started going down like a Napoleonic battle. I know, it happened right in my face once. As several California tracks, and the major marketer of PolyTrack, Keeneland, soon discovered, their quality of racing and hallowed traditions - the iconic Blue Grass Stakes turned into a neutered race - went down the toilet and they switched back to dirt.

Look, I know that the vast majority of the populace either doesn't have horse racing in its consciousness, except for the folderol of the Kentucky Derby, or closes its eyes believing that horseplayers are filthy denizens of the dark alleys of gambling or worse.

But take a gander at its images and you'll see it's as clean and modern as any sporting facility in the world, even meeting the high standards of architecture Chicago purports to hold for itself. It also holds many other events during the offseason.

This is absolutely equivalent to he Tribune Company (which did once) or the Ricketts family threatening and then following through on demolishing Wrigley Field. For a one-time colonic of a profit.

When I swore off of Chicago's loserville, whiny human sports in the very early 2000s, I gravitated to horse racing, which I had always enjoyed on a civilian basis. Admittedly naive, I thought partaking meant going to the track. I went quite often, but my level of aggravation rose each time. The ratio of the baby stroller crowd - a good friend of mine deadpanned "Yeah, betting $2 to Show on the favorite" - to actual racing fans and players kept growing and the dirtiest looks I ever got was from the one person holding dibs on a plastic picnic table as I rested my tired ass down for just a few moments on the other end, before social distancing was a thing. Get a goddamned life, Burb She-Devil. The last race was never coordinated with the commuter train. The mutuel odds made it impossible to win more than a few pilasters because when Biff and Mandy saw a 15-1 that should have been 15-1, they'd bet the nag down so far, the odds still went down after the race started!

I went less and less often, went more often to Hawthorne, and revisited Arlington only when my memories of the indignities went blank, only to be rekindled every time after. That's when I head-slap discovered the OTBs and spent countless Saturdays with the nicest bunch of characters I will never forget. I won't be going to Arlington this summer out of any sense of nostalgia or sadness. I don't want to even dip my toe in the fires of CDI evil.

It was clear Arlington concentrated on attendance rather than racing or the people who bet on it. Cheap parking and minimal entry fees - the idea was to churn bets through the windows - morphed into higher prices for everything, including food of diminishing quality turning out bad. The seeds of this concept might actually have been sown by one-time owner Marje Everett, who once owned Arlington Park, Hollywood Park - which CDI also murdered to sell for what became the new Rams/Chargers stadium - Chicago's old Washington Park and the late Balmoral harness palace. She was an opinionated broad who once entertained the taboo of night racing at Arlington. Her eyebrows were singed in the old Otto Kerner racetrack stock scandal. Her emphasis on attendance to build handle seemed admirable, but where racing was once the highest attended sport in America more recently than you think, it was also quixotic. That was on the cusp of simulcast betting, which is what really ruined attendance.

Chicago was once one of America's racing meccas, second to none, including the almighty Kentucky. Spinning out of the turn of Prohibition, the original Arlington opened in 1927.

Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935) and Assault (1946) all ran in the well-pursed Arlington Classic. Citation ran his fourth race here in 1947 and returned for the Stars and Stripes nearly a year later. Whirlaway (1941) ran five of his first six races at Arlington, prepped for and ran in the Classic the summer of his Crown year, and ran the Arlington Handicap here in 1942.

Secretariat, who you would think was bushed from his Triple Crown heroics, ran in the Made-For-TV Arlington Invitational 21 days later, beating the quality My Gallant by nine and Our Native by 26. "Starting slow," he was only 1/5 off the track record then held by Damascus.

Seabiscuit made that same train trip, but was scratched as the track came up past rainforest sloppy.

Cigar ran here. John Henry, the Steel Drivin' Horse, won the first Arlington Million, so sensational, they erected a statue to a finish still debated today. Three years later, he won it again.

The Arlington Classic was once as important a race as any in America. It's alumni include Native Dancer, Nashua, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Ack Ack and Alydar, exclamation point for all!

Every jockey you've ever heard of rode here. Julie Krone rode Saint Ballado in 1992. Pat Day poured the foundation of his career at AP. George "The Iceman" Woolf, Shoemaker, Arcaro, Baeza, Cordero Jr., Turcotte of course. Rene Douglas should be considered the all-time king of Arlington. His career ended in a jockey's worst nightmare when his horse in the Arlington Matron in 2009 stumbled, flipped and landed on top of him. He now owns horses.

Jimmy Jones, Calumet Farm's legendary trainer, once said Arlington was the finest track he ever put a horse on.

None of this matters to a lot of people, especially Duchossois, Mr. Racing.

We can't have everything forever. After the Bidwills ruined Sportsman's Park in Cicero, the entire property is now one huge, white warehouse. Giant, and blinding in sunlight.

In all honesty, sometimes I have a hard time sleeping with the vision of a wrecking ball hitting all the nooks and crannies I once roamed in. The barren souls of empty bodies of people like Duchossois and Carstanjen and every single CDI stockholder will be quite happy, until the next market correction, I guess. They'll get their cheap-shit condos and Starbucks paying exorbitant rent and, a big maybe post-pandemic, commuters getting no true inspiration or great views from a desensitized Arlington Heights - unless they think they do. Soon just another Metra stop. Arlington Heights government doesn't seem to care. Keywords: Desensitized, tax base.

What kind of nostalgia am I supposed to have? I never saw great racing there and got the feeling they were trying to ruin it. The Marje Everetts, Gulf and Westerns. Dick Duchossois public relationed as the benevolent patriarch God of Illinois racing. Boy, that Hindenburg got popped.

And CDI slowly, tortuously ruined one of the greatest tracks in the world, which had everything going for it, including being able to get there. Forget me. These are callous, vicious people who are taking the livelihoods away from the countless people from owners and trainers to the grooms (who have families), farriers, vets, to the farmers who grow the hay.

I boycotted all wagering on 2020's Kentucky Derby and will never wager on it, or that whole weekend, ever again.

The sheer excitement of the apron and the (pre-Poly) brown track and green infield, morning-testing the tote board. Watching the tail end of the morning gallops. We liked it, but we're only fans, who feed the tote. Apparently they didn't like it, with contempt.

Carstanjen, in Undercover Boss, couldn't stand the smell of horse manure.

The stove's been stoked and I can't wait to get back out to Hawthorne. For the horses.

And I'm going to beg for a tour of the stables to catch a good whiff of what those magnificent animals put out.

That's so much sweeter than than the noxious poisons rising from the Metra Northwest Line's 13th stop.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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