There was a time when Arlington Million Day was about as good as it gets in horse racing. The race was the only $1 million event in the sport and it attracted all of the best turf horses in the U.S. and several stars from Europe. Even after the Breeders' Cup stole some of its thunder with a full menu of million-dollar and million-dollar plus races, the Million was still a major highlight of the summer and was held at one of the most beautiful and imaginative racetracks ever built.
They'll run the Arlington Million for the 33rd time this Saturday and, sadly, it will be just another race on another day at the races. The Million field isn't bad, but neither is it spectacular. The card also includes a $5,000 claimer and a maiden claimer and the three major undercard stakes have all seen their purses cut by $50,000. Bettors will be far more interested in what's going on at Saratoga and Del Mar, where the handles will dwarf whatever they bet on Arlington.
Actually, it's rather remarkable that Arlington can still offer a day of racing like this one. No racing circuit has fallen harder, further and faster than the one in Chicago.
Squeezed by nearby casinos, unable to compete with "racino" tracks offering fat purses and run by a company (Churchill Downs) that tries a lot harder with its casinos than its racetracks, Arlington Park has hit rock bottom. Weekday handles typically check in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, field sizes are pitiful and so are the purses. A maiden special weight race at Arlington goes for $21,600. That's about one fifth of what the same race is worth at Saratoga, half of what it is worth at Parx and $3,400 less than the same race at a Thistledown.
For obvious reasons, horsemen have been leaving Arlington in droves in recent years. The leading owner in the sport, based on wins, is Midwest Thoroughbreds, which is owned Richard and Karen Papiese, who are from the Chicago area. They no longer have a stable at Arlington.
In 2015, Arlington and Chicago's other track, Hawthorne, will run a combined 150 days in 2015, down from 189 the year before. Arlington management had wanted to run even fewer dates but the Illinois Racing Board wouldn't let them cut their schedule any further.
By any definition, Arlington Park has become a minor-league track, which seemed impossible when its former owner Richard Duchossois built the beautiful new Arlington, which opened in 1989 and replaced the track that burned to the ground in 1985. The Million was already an iconic event in thoroughbred racing, the richest event in the sport. Its inaugural running in 1981 remains one of the greatest races in the sport's history as John Henry beat longshot The Bart by a nose.
But like so many other things when it comes to Arlington, the Million couldn't keep up. Once it was the only $1 million race in the sport. This year, there will be 40 races worth at least $1 million and 16 of those go for more than $1 million. There are 12 turf races worth at least $1 million.
So Million XXXIII will come and go without anyone hardly noticing. Big Blue Kitten will be the favorite, and while he's a nice horse and a legitimate Grade 1 performer, he's certainly no John Henry. The first race on the card is even more symbolic of Arlington's plight. A race that has no business being held on a Million card, it's a $5,000 conditioned claimer with an $8,550 purse. The $5,000 claimers at Finger Lakes go for $9,000.
Though Arlington would no doubt be better off if run by a company or an individual that cared more about racing, most of its problems would have happened under anybody's watch. For tracks like Arlington that don't have slots or any other alternative form of revenue, betting handle is the lifeblood. Purses are much higher at the slots tracks, which means those tracks get the better horses and bigger fields. Horseplayers gravitate away from the poor betting products at the Arlingtons of the world, which need their business desperately, and play the casino tracks.
There's a snowball affect. The worse the racing gets at Arlington, the less is bet on it. With handle continually falling, the purses are lowered and the quality of the racing and the field size decline still more. That's results in even less handle. It's a cycle from which there is no escape. According to Crain's Chicago Business, Arlington's revenue has fallen by 23 percent since 2009.
It's the modern reality of horse racing, where the haves and have nots are more often than not determined by who has slots and who doesn't. Arlington and Hawthorne are hanging in there in hopes that they will some day get gaming, but there are no signs that the Illinois tracks are going to get a casino any time soon.
It's a sad state of affairs in a once proud racing state and there doesn't seem to be any hope for a rebound. This won't be the last Arlington Million. But will the race exist five years from now or 10 years from now? There's no guarantee that it will.