08/16/2001 11:00PM

Arlington thriving in partnership

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Arlington Park's merger with Churchill Downs, announced last year, appears to be working well. Wagering ontrack is up 4 percent and overall wagering is up 17 percent. Best of all, attendance is up 5 percent, at least partially a reaction to good racing. The key is the development of a racing circuit, ensuring a stream of horses going from Churchill Downs's spring meeting to Arlington's summer meeting, and then returning to Kentucky tracks in the fall. The circuit concept is not fully in place as yet, but it is developing, to the benefit of all concerned. A healthy Arlington Park is certainly beneficial to its partner, Churchill Downs.

Churchill Downs acquired Calder, Hollywood Park, and other racing properties in recent years, but it merged with Arlington in a stock transaction that gave Arlington Park's chairman Dick Duchossois 24 to 25 percent of Churchill Downs stock, another 8 or 9 percent when a gaming riverboat goes into operation in nearby Rosemont. Under the terms of racing reform legislation passed with the support of Gov. George Ryan, a portion of the state's take on the gaming at the Rosemont river boat will be ear-marked for purses at Arlington, further strengthening the track's outlook.

Arlington was closed for two years at considerable expense because Duchossois insisted on a reform package that initially met with resistance in Springfield, the state capital. The track reopened last year, took a while to regain stride, and now appears positioned for prominence on the national scene. Breeders' Cup officials have confirmed that they are negotiating with Arlington to serve as host track in 2002.

"No contracts have been signed as yet so it is a little premature to go into details," Duchossois noted. "But plans are being drawn for temporary arrangements that will give us between 50,000 and 55,000 seats. Some will be added to the left of the stands in the present picnic area. Some will be added to the right of the stands where a series of tents are now located. And there will be additional seating on the apron in front of the stands."

Soldier Field, home of Chicago's professional football and soccer teams, will be rebuilt, a project of at least a year's duration and probably two. During that period the Bears will play at the University of Illinois field in Champagne while the Fire, the city's soccer team, is to use a temporary stadium to be built on track property on the other side of the infield. If details can be worked out, several thousand seats in that stadium may be temporarily positioned for Breeders Cup viewing.

Duchossois, who will celebrate an 80th birthday in a few weeks, intends to remain active and will continue to direct affairs at Arlington as well as retaining his interests in Duchossois Industries, a privately owned corporation with companies throughout the world. Duchossois's son, Craig, is CEO of Duchossois Industries, and to strengthen the management team, Scott Mordell, Arlington's president, was recently promoted to an executive post in the DI organization, but will continue to have broad-based responsibilities with respect to Duchossois racing interests. Steve Sexton, a top racing executive who played a key role in the success of Lone Star Park near Dallas, joined the Arlington management team this year and will move up to head the organization.

"I'm going to a hospital on Monday for some hip surgery," Duchossois said, "and the doctors will do a few procedures on my heart. I expect to remain active here for a long time but it is prudent and realistic to have management in place and we have been working in that direction for quite a while."