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Columnist
As state waits, tracks are dying
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/29/2008 12:10 AM

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While the legislature dawdles, the Illinois horse racing industry burns.

That's the only conclusion you can reach on the eve of yet another Arlington Park opening without slots.

A Party in the Park kicks off the season Friday, and while the local oval is doing its level best to compete on an uneven playing field, the rest of state's tracks may not be as lucky.

Indiana will join Iowa this summer as neighboring states with track slots, many more in the U.S. have already done it, and Pennsylvania is adding tracks just for the purpose of adding gaming.

There is a bill in Springfield that would likely pass, offering the tracks slots relief, if it would ever get to a vote. The holdup is the politics of where the added revenue will be spent.

In the meantime, farms are going out of business or leaving the state, and Arlington will continue to lose quality horses to out-of-state tracks offering bigger purses because of money available from slots.

"Not everyone is as lucky as Arlington in that we have a great facility, so we can probably struggle by for a while longer,'' said Arlington president Roy Arnold. "But when you look around at all the tracks, it's not too difficult to imagine seeing a radical change in the number of tracks operating in Illinois, if something isn't done soon.''

It's easy for those fighting slots to say racing doesn't deserve any help, but it's the state that put the industry in this hole.

With gaming only at racetracks when casinos were added, rather than punish horse racing, the state could have easily added slots at tracks, which were already a regulated gaming industry.

Furthermore, tracks are at the mercy of state regulation, so they can't diversify their business, change their racing dates, or move their facilities.

"It's clear that there's going to be a shakeout,'' Arnold said. "Those who don't find a formula to be effective quickly are probably going out of business.

"That's a lot of jobs we're talking about statewide, and no one wants to see that happen.''

So why, for the love of The Bart and all that's holy, is it taking so long?

The good stuff

Arlington has finally revamped its Web site into an easy-to-navigate and helpful spot with information on all things racing (arlingtonpark.com).

There is news on a new tote board, online ticketing, and new terminals to replace all the horribly outdated wagering machines.

There's also a new "High 5'' wager (think super plus one), 2:30 p.m. Friday posts, and the biggest change, the "Arlington Cash Card.''

It's a card a visitor can purchase for any amount for use in any self-serve terminal, on which a cash balance and wagers are stored and winnings automatically credited.

"We're doing everything we can think of, short of legislative support, to change the business model and invest more in the facility,'' Arnold said. "We think it'll pay off for the fans when they see shorter lines for everything from hot dogs to making wagers.''

The good cause

Ryan Diem's "Allie and Friends Golf Classic,'' set for Monday at Boulder Ridge in Lake in the Hills, is a sellout, but you can still help out and hear Colts coach Tony Dungy speak Sunday night at the Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg.

Each year, Diem brings Indy teammates and a host of celebrities and athletes as a fund-raiser to fight Neuroblastoma, and raise awareness of this rare and aggressive form of pediatric cancer.

Tickets can be purchased by visiting allieandfriends.org, and if you can't make it Sunday, it's a cause very worthy of a donation.

Ivan Boldirev-ing

The Wolves were hoping to establish a rivalry with the Blackhawks' farm club in Rockford, and there's nothing like a brutal playoff showdown to stoke a heated conflict.

Their conference semifinal series begins with Games 1 and 2, Thursday and Saturday (both 7 p.m.), at the Allstate Arena, where Hawks fans also get a chance to see a Rockford squad loaded with prospects that have played, or should soon play, with the parent club.

Visit chicagowolves.com for ticket info.

Norris rewind

Not for nothing, but these AHL playoffs have a bit of the old NHL feel to them. There's an odd crossover here or there, but essentially it's the same 1 vs. 4, and 2 vs. 3, that made the Hawks vs. Minny or St. Louis in the '80s a can't-miss divisional series. It's those kinds of rivalries that the NHL desperately needs to rediscover.

Extension junction

From Sanjay H., my favorite GM not working in baseball today: "Do you see Jim Hendry over the next few weeks trying to lock up Ryan Dempster for another year or two? Dempster's looked fantastic and might be cheaper now than at the end of the season.''

Merger mania

In case you missed it, Wrigley's been sold. No, not the ballpark; the chewing gum company went to a fellow candy maker. It's only natural that the neighborhood establishments around the Tavern on the Green shall henceforth be known as, Mars Bars.

Best line

White Sox broadcaster Ed Farmer, on Monday's rain-soaked affair: "Game-time temperature is 38 degrees _ but it doesn't feel that warm.''

Drafting

Sportspickle.com, with one of its favorite NFL draft memories: "Paul Tagliabue is unable to find his wallet after calling Lawrence Phillips to the stage as the No. 6 pick.''

And finally …

Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel: "Forget about 330-pound Jake Long. Everybody knows the three biggest entities in the NFL draft are: (1) Chris Berman's ego, (2) John Clayton's forehead, (3) Mel Kiper's hair."