As he watched over opening day at Arlington Park Thursday, Chairman Richard Duchossois talked about the present and future of the horse racing industry.
Duchossois, now 88, said he expects the next few years to be tough, but believes that the improving economy will eventually benefit racing as well - although he adds that having slot machines are essential to the industry's survival.
Here is an edited version of an interview with Duchossois on Thursday.
Q. How do you see the long-term future of racing?
A. There will be one-half as many race tracks nationally in three or four years. All the tracks that don't have slot machines and some with them will be in trouble. For example, in Indiana taxes are so high. Slots are essential to our survival; I don't like to say that.
Q. Will the number of Illinois tracks be cut in half, too?
A. I couldn't speak for the other tracks in Illinois, but they are going through hard times. We are doing OK but not breaking any records or anything.
Q. Arlington Heights village officials are not happy about the state going over their head and taking the decision for slots away from them.
A. I understand what the village board is thinking. They don't want to be told what to do. (But) I don't think it's going over their head. That's between them and the state. What happens if this place is shut down?
We don't even know if we are going to get it. In that bill there are lot of things we don't like; we're not sure what's in the bill. We would be able to sit down with the village fathers and trustees and show them where the benefits are with less real estate taxes.
There's a small anti-gaming group that's very vocal and hurts all the citizens. You aren't entitled to criticize unless you have a better way of doing it.
Q. Why do you think tracks will have tough times for a few more years?
A. The economy hasn't turned to the point yet where there's a surplus of money to spend. The horsemen and the people who come to the track are both dependent on the outside economy. If the economy picks up, we will, too.
Q. Explain more about your theory of recovery for the industry.
A. People who say racing is going down cry doom all the time. It will probably drop off in the next year or two and then start back up again with more quality, fewer races, better management and fewer race tracks.
There's an overabundance of horses, most of them not very good. People don't have the money to breed as many horses now.
At our farm we rescue horses. With the Internet we can find homes that will take horses if they are given to them. They are good riding horses, they just run slow.
Q. Why are you only racing four days a week (Thursday through Sunday with the addition of Monday holidays)?
A. We have about the same number of races, but there are more per day and they are consolidated in a smaller period. Racing is an event and one to be very pleasurable and not taken for granted.
We think it's good for the horses, too.
The majority (of fans) don't come out during the week. This is a bedroom community, not a destination resort; people work during the week. Ballgames fill up because they are close to downtown and attract a lot of out-of-town people.
Q. What are you excited about at Arlington Park this year?
A. Do you have an hour?
Last year's attendance was as good or a little better than the year before. It's going to be better this year because of the new things we have. We spent approximately $6 million on improvements including the new Longshots Sports Bar. And we have the Arlington Racing Club. We also have the ability to reach out to individuals on the Internet.
We have a lot coming to the races who have never been before. It takes two or three years to learn how to wager properly and create a fan.
Q. How has the pari-mutuel business changed?
A. Ten years ago 90 percent of all wagering was done at the racetrack. In 2009 91 percent of the wagering is done away from the racetrack in off-track betting locations and simulcasts.
We have to give them a reason to come to the track and have fun. The track and horsemen and local governments keep a lot more of the money from bets made at the track.
We want you to win. Whether you win or lose we get a commission on each ticket that's sold. If you come with $100 and lose it by the second race, you'll go home or sit on your hands.