Illinois' racing board is taking a gamble in an attempt to save the beleaguered industry. Two historic Illinois tracks will hold no races next year, a decision that could lead to their permanent closure.
The decision by Illinois' 11-member racing board was unanimous: no horses will run at Balmoral and Maywood parks in 2016.
"We can't sit out a year and survive; we'll have to default on our lease and that'll be the end of it," said Duke Johnston, a partial owner of the tracks. His family has long been in the business. Johnston's somber tone and weary face following the decision stood in stark contrast to the pleasure and optimism in Dick Duchossois'.
"We're starting all over again, it's a fresh start," said the Arlington Park owner.
The board has given it and the Hawthorne park all Chicago-area races. The idea is that consolidating races - and therefore expenses and prizes - will make the remaining tracks more competitive.
"It raises purses at both entities, which will attract more horses, which will result in larger field size, which results in more wagering which results in more purses. It's circular," Arlington racecourse General Manager Tony Petrillo said.
Advocates of the horse racing industry say Illinois is no longer competitive, because unlike other states, slots are not legal at the tracks. All owners are pushing for the legislature to pass a gambling expansion bill that would permit race tracks to convert to combination casinos, sometimes called "racinos."
Balmoral and Maywood have struggled most though -- an $78 million judgment for involvement in a Rod Blagojevich-related extortion scheme led them to file bankruptcy. Johnston says potential buyers, hopeful that a gaming bill will pass, will lose interest now that they've lost a racing schedule.
Balmoral and Maywood traditionally held harness races; now Hawthorne, which (save for a limited run in 2008) had only held thoroughbred races, will host a limited number of those.