My friend Kevin, who loves to play the ponies, had pegged the rebuilt Arlington International Racecourse as a sure winner after the press made it a morning-line 1-to-5 favorite. He lost.
"I really wanted to like this place," he said. "I thought, 'How can you not like it?' I like horse racing, and these are great horses, even if the hot dogs cost $4. Outside it feels like a track, except there's all these guys walking around sweeping up anything that falls on the ground. There's your economic development, right? Three thousand jobs paying $3 an hour.
"But inside it's like Disneyland. OK, I can understand the marketing. Duchossois isn't selling horse racing, he's selling Arlington as a classy place to be. The problem is that the 'Arlington experience' is just like every other experience. When I first went in, I couldn't decide whether it looked more like a church or a mall. The restaurant scene's exactly like lunch hour at the food court in the State of Illinois Center, except that everybody's reading the Racing Form.
"I mean, everything's clean. Everything made of white marble, and they've got thousands of silk flowers in hanging baskets, and everybody looks like that yuppie couple in Annie Hall--you know, the ones Woody Allen goes up to and says, 'You look like a very happy couple,' and asks them how they do it, and she says, 'I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas,' and he says, 'I'm exactly the same way.'
"Did you read what Buck Henry wrote in the new Interview about growing up in LA? He said that his dad and his buddies would get depressed when Santa Anita was closed and they had to go to Hollywood Park, where they had flocks of geese in the infield and girls dressed up like milkmaids. They called Hollywood the 'sissy track.' That's the difference between Sportsman's and Arlington, exactly. I went over to the other side of the track to the intertrack betting parlor--it looks like a bingo parlor--and I said, 'Finally, some horse players!'
"Arlington makes perfect sense in terms of suburban Chicago. There's this huge TV screen in the infield, so even though you're at the track you end up watching the race on TV. In fact, without TV, Arlington doesn't work. You can't even see the starting gate from the grandstand because it's so far away.
"When I was there it was Julie Krone weekend. She's a jockey and she's cute and she has this New Jersey accent, and after a race they show her on this TV screen waving to the crowd from right in front of the grandstand. And these women in back of me call out, 'There's Julie Krone!' and start waving back at the TV screen. She's standing right down there in front of them, but they're waving at Julie Krone on TV, waving at them.
"It was real scary. It's like MTV for horse racing. You know how once you watch a video of a song, that's what you see whenever you hear that song? Arlington is what people will see when they think horse racing.
"But what really bugs me is all this sanctimony about Duchossois and how he spent all of this money to bring us a great racetrack. But this man is not an entrepreneur, he's not risking his own money. This is a hobby, a monument to Dick Duchossois' ego. If he'd taken that land after the old track burned down and built offices and condos on it, we'd never have heard about him again. The guy talks about how he did this to build the Illinois economy and out of a sense of obligation. So the other day he threatens the Arlington Heights school board that if they dare to tax his racetrack at its full value, he'll shut it down. This is Mother Teresa?
"It's not his fucking money anyway, it's my money. He cut all kinds of deals with the legislature so they'd give him an extra percent of the handle compared to other Illinois tracks. I mean, his lobbyist is Commonwealth Edison's lobbyist. He's just another bookie. If they didn't have gambling out there, no one would show up, because there are better malls.
"I'd rather go to the OTB. In a sense it's the same experience, because it's all on TV anyway. And it's air-conditioned."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.