On the Other Hand

Illinois racing. It's hard to figure out where to start thinking about the current state of affairs. Harder yet to figure out where things are going.

On the one hand, 2002 could, perhaps should, be a great year for Illinois racing. Some reasons:

* Despite recent "sound and fury," or maybe because of that noise, progress could be at hand on a new riverboat casino in Rosemont, near O'Hare International Airport, that would pump millions of dollars a year into the industry.

* The Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championship races at Arlington Park will be the first ever run in Illinois and should spark a new "buzz" about racing.

* Financial woes at Sportsman's Park fuel optimism about potential consolidation with Hawthorne Race Course's racing programs. Such a consolidation would have multiple benefits for fans.

* Fairmount Park, after a brush with oblivion last year, shows signs of new life this year.

But wait. There's that pesky "other hand."

Start with Sportsman's and its competing next-door neighbor, Hawthorne. The Illinois Racing Board has been after the tracks for years to consolidate and that outcome seemed within reach as 2002 dawned. Then...problems.

Four years ago, the Bidwill family--one of the most respected of racetrack clans--converted Sportsman's into an auto racing facility that also could run horse races. The Bidwills financed construction of 70,000 seats for fans of the loud machines. The first year showed promise, with a capacity crowd on hand for the Target Grand Prix.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Early this year, Chicago Motor Speedway announced it would not be conducting any motor sports this year and CART had to step in to take over its own race at the CMS this summer on a lease basis.

So the CMS sits atop Sportsman's Park with 70,000 seats it doesn't need. Ironically, Arlington, to stage the Breeders' Cup races, needs at least 30,000 seats it currently doesn't have. And no, the CMS seats can't be moved from Sportsman's to Arlington.

The financial burden of paying for the CMS construction, meanwhile, hangs over negotiations about consolidation.

How about that riverboat in Rosemont? Well, that has become "the boat that won't float."

Illinois Gaming Board approval of the license has been tied up in litigation virtually since it was mandated by the legislature in 1999. In addition, the Gaming Board itself refused to license the current ownership group.

The latest plan to resolve that dilemma is to have the existing ownership sell to a national gaming corporation--possibly with any profits from that sale going back to the state. Leadership on the Gaming Board reportedly brokered the basic tenets of that plan.

Not so fast, though. The next and latest chapter in the saga is Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens' shocked realization that the enabling legislation could result in the boat producing more money for racing than for the state of Illinois. Stephens--who should have known these details, since he helped negotiate them in the Legislature--has threatened to terminate the project unless that situation is corrected.

That sounds, at first blush, like bad news for racing. All is not as it seems. If, in fact, the legislation can be "corrected" to cap racing's share of the boat revenue, that might be all the Illinois Gaming Board needs to finally give a go-ahead to a sale and construction. Racing might get somewhat less than the $60 million a year Stephens says the bill currently could provide. But hey...feel free to throw us in that briar patch!

With that accomplished, everyone could move forward to dealing with lawsuits from other would-be licensees.

Fairmount remains a bright spot. At this time last year, a court ruling on its purse structure forced huge cutbacks at Fairmount and threatened to put that track under.

Through hard work in the state capitol, Fairmount regained control of its finances. A sound operation at that downstate track is critical to all of Illinois racing.

All of these issues could work out. And the Arlington Breeders' Cup will be great.
So let's be hopeful. b

Bob Kieckhefer is the Illinois correspondent for The Blood-Horse.