Former Arlington Park employee reflects on track's former glory

Former Arlington Park employee reflects on track's former glory
Photo: Michael R. Schmidt/Eclipse Sportswire

When Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Castanjen announced in a July 30 earnings call that time is almost certainly short for live racing at Arlington Park, the announcement, though not a surprise, sent a shockwave through the racing community, particularly in Illinois.

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen Association issued a blistering statement, lambasting CDI, which gained control of Arlington Park in 2000, for the decision.

“For Churchill’s CEO to say preposterously that Churchill has been ‘patient’ with other stakeholders speaks to the height of Churchill’s contempt for the elected officials and working families of Illinois,” the statement said. “The very least that Churchill could do is be honest about its true intention: the company cares only about maximizing profit and is happy to sacrifice the spirit of Illinois law and the livelihood of working Illinoisans to serve its greed.”

For Lynne Snierson, who worked in public relations and broadcasting at the track in the 1990s, the emotion upon hearing the news was sadness, but also hopefulness as nothing has been finalized.

“It’s sad,” Snierson said. “Of course it’s horrible, but I’ve been around this game long enough to know that things aren’t done until they’re done and I’ve learned not to go by rumors and maybes.”

Sneirson worked at Arlington Park from 1991 to 1995, first as a journalist, then as an employee. To her, the Arlington Park of those days was grand. At that time, it was owned by Richard Duchossois, who cared deeply about the cleanliness and fan experience at Arlington, and it showed, she said.

Sneirson bragged about the landscaping at the track, which she said was managed by a licensed horticulturist who was in charge of planting 25,000 annual flowers, all of which would be ripped out and replanted after each racing season.

“Mr. D. insisted upon perfection,” Snierson said. “And perfection could never be achieved. It was always an elusive quality because when you did meet the standards that were set, he just raised the bar higher.

The track garnered a reputation that continues to this day as one of the most beautiful places to see a race in the country. Snierson said the reputation is a direct result of the vision of Duchossois.

She had nothing but compliments for her old employer, who helped guide the track through tough times. These included a 1985 fire, which burned down the clubhouse and grandstand but didn’t stop the track from running the Arlington Million a month later.

“Working for Mr. D. was the equivalent of getting an MBA at Harvard,” Snierson said. “He taught me so much.”
According to Carstanjen, the track will finish out the 2020 season and possibly 2021 before alternate uses will be found for the land.

“The long-term solution is not Arlington Park,” Carstanjen said. “That land will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point. But we want to work constructively with all of the constituencies in the market to see if there’s an opportunity to move the license or otherwise change the circumstances so that racing can continue in Illinois.”

Snierson said that she has seen racetracks in New England shut throughout her career, and she provided ideas about what might happen to the horsemen who are displaced by the end of live racing.

“People scattered all over,” Snierson said. “Some people went to Florida, some people went to West Virginia, some people were in Pennsylvania, some people were now in Ohio. They have to go where they feel their horses can compete in purses and whichever program fits them the best.” The current meet at Arlington Park is scheduled to end Sept. 30, according to the track's website.

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