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Arlington chief: Tracks 'can't run on hope'
By Timothy Magaw | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 6/24/2010 12:00 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - Officials from Arlington Park and its parent company have painted a grim picture of the suburban racetrack's future unless they're allowed install video slot machines.

"Unless the state allows this industry to diversify its product offerings and thereby diversify its revenue, it is difficult to look forward and see a bright ending to the story," Arlington Park President Roy Arnold said in an interview Wednesday.

Arnold's comments come days after Bob Evans, the CEO of Arlington Park's parent company Churchill Downs, told reporters in Louisville the company's racetracks that don't offer slot machines or gambling alternatives simply "can't run on hope."

The company is planning an internal review of its four racetracks, and Evans said it is difficult to justify racing at tracks that don't have slot machines or other forms of gambling.

Arlington Park officials and some lawmakers have lobbied extensively to get approval to expand the racetracks gambling operations to include video poker and slot machines. Advocates say the expansion is needed for Arlington Park to compete with other racetracks and casinos in Illinois and elsewhere in the country.

A drop in gaming activity by out-of-town wagers at Arlington Park has already forced officials to make $725,000 in cuts to its purses for 11 stakes races at the track and put one stakes race on hold for the season.

"It's a huge, huge industry," said Barrington Hills state Rep. Mark Beaubien, one of the lawmakers participating in negotiations. "Why don't we support them to help them flourish and grow?"

A deal emerged at the end of the General Assembly's spring session to allow slots at Illinois racetracks, but it ultimately stalled due to the harsh political realities of voting for what some people perceive as a gambling expansion during an election year.

The plan would have put as many as 1,200 video gambling positions at Arlington Park and other Cook County racetracks, which would have propped up financing for the state's $31 billion statewide construction program. Despite support from various horse racing factions, the plan never fully emerged as both riverboat casino lobbyists and anti-gambling activists moved to squash the deal.

Arlington Heights officials and some local lawmakers expressed concern over a provision of the proposal that would remove any say of whether to allow the gambling machines from the local governments.

Arnold expects lawmakers to approve the proposal in November when they return after the election to tie up loose ends and act on any legislation the governor rejected.

"We're not giving up," he said. "We're not going away."

Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report.