Steam rising off their hulking bodies, a half-dozen standardbred horses power into position.
In front of two-wheeled sulkies on this arctic winter night in February, their hooves dig into frozen ground that’s covered with a thin layer of snow.
As the white limousine that holds out the starting gate starts to pull away, their dark, glossy eyes grow intense.
The drivers lean back in their seats and the animals pick up speed, reaching 35 mph and moving into free space until the gate releases them.
On a below-zero night on this Melrose Park track, there’s not a grunt, a snap of a whip or a shout.
The only audible sound on the track is the thunderous pounding of hooves.
It took an immense amount of work to get the animals to this point.
The grooms, the trainers, the owners, the drivers, the vets — some say that 20 people touch each of those horses before they get to the track.
But across the infield, in the indoor viewing area, the seats are virtually empty. Few people are buying concessions. There are no lines to buy betting slips.
There’s just a handful of people on hand, and most are aging, just like the sport that’s struggling to draw younger and more diverse crowds.
For its part, Maywood Park says there’s only one salvation for the track. And it’s has nothing to do with racing.
They’re slot machines. If Maywood doesn’t get them, they say they’ll fold by June.
The collapse of horseracing has touched every racetrack in Illinois, where thoroughbred and harness racing have had a colorful history that dates back to the state’s earliest days. The sport once appealed to the masses unlike few others. It mixed pageantry, adrenaline and scandal, involving names that have come to symbolize Illinois, both good and bad.
In the 1850s, while still a Springfield lawyer, Abraham Lincoln was known to enjoy watching horses race at a Sangamon County fair. In the 1930s, Al Capone reportedly held a silent stake in the old Sportsman’s Park in Cicero.
Racing has shaken and shaped Illinois’ political culture. A bribery scheme involving racing dates and stock kickbacks took down federal judge and former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner in a case that launched the political career of another governor, James R. Thompson, the ambitious federal prosecutor who helped convict Kerner in 1973.
That same year brought perhaps racing’s finest hour in Illinois, when more than 40,000 people crowded the old Arlington Park to see the most famous racehorse of them all, Secretariat, race one month after winning the Triple Crown.
In the years after Secretariat appeared in the northwest suburbs, the racing industry’s fortunes grew at a robust pace, pumping nearly $85 million into state coffers in 1979 and setting a wagering record of $1.29 billion in 1992.
But that industry no longer exists in Illinois. Virtually every financial measure of the sport has trended downward since the 1990s because casinos siphoned away bettors, and higher purses in states that allowed slot machines at racetracks lured the best horses away.
“We can’t just cry about things. We have to innovate and move forward,” said Richard Duchossois, the longtime Arlington Park owner who is part of the largest investor group in Churchill Downs. “I’m extremely optimistic about our industry. We have all of the right things. But what has basically happened [is] we have been maybe overregulated and not given a level playing field. . . . This is where part of our problem is today.”
In 2010, the state took in only $7.4 million from horseracing, an 84-percent slide from three decades ago.
Total wagering in 2010 — nearly $725.7 million — dropped by 44 percent compared with 1992 and represented the lowest amount of betting since the early 1970s, according to the Illinois Racing Board’s soon-to-be-released 2010 annual report.
As a result of less wagering, racing is not as lucrative for horse owners. Total purse money — nearly $54.3 million — has slid 54 percent since 2002. Harness racing purses dropped by 62 percent since 2002.
Another byproduct of lower purses: In 2010, the fewest foals were born in Illinois in 34 years, the Illinois Department of Agriculture reported, as breeders decided to move stables out of state or get out of the industry entirely.
At Maywood, the track owner, the horsemen, the bettors, even the guy who vends the food knows it. And they aren’t afraid to say it.
“It is bleak,” says Maywood’s Operations Manager Bob Kevil.
In the 1970s, 20,000 people would pack into Maywood Park, filling the parking lot and causing traffic jams, Kevil said. Now, Jewel and Target eat up much of that parking space, as do truckers for CDL license training.
On a recent Monday afternoon, when there’s no racing at the track, two dozen or so bodies scattered throughout the giant facility are watching other races simulcast from across the country.
“Look at these people here,” Kevil says pointing to the clubhouse betting room. “One is older than the next.”
That morning, a customer fell on the ice, hurting his neck and splitting his forehead.
“He was 90,” Kevil says. “The guy who rescued him was 85.”
The rough-talking, third generation owner of the track, Duke Johnston, says it plainly.
“What really hurt us is our purses are for s---,” he says. “Our quality of racing has gone to s---.”
Quality horses and quality horsemen have fled to Indiana, New York and Delaware where slot money bolsters purses. Many have fled to the premier Meadowlands track in New Jersey, which doesn’t have slots, but has for some time received state subsidies.
“All of our top drivers, top 15 from three years ago, they’re all gone,” Johnston says.
The Illinois talent flight aggravates an ongoing battle to attract interest in the sport, a problem that faces racing nationally. Interest in racing is dying off along with its older clientele. And like most industries, a weak economy isn’t helping.
Illinois trackowners say states that have slots are reviving the sport, stealing jobs and talent while attracting crowds and larger purses.
But anti-gambling activist Anita Bedell, who heads Illinois Church Action On Alcohol & Addiction Problems, has lobbied against allowing slot machines at racetracks and questions why the state should be concerned with returning the industry to health.
“Why prop up an industry nobody is using?” she said.
Besides worrying about the potential social costs, Bedell believes the argument for slot machines is disingenuous, particularly when it comes from racetrack owners.
“When they get slots, all it does is make them rich from the machines and then they become a casino.”
Some horse owners think slots alone won’t save them. They want track management to do more to attract crowds, like advertise or lower concession prices.
But trainer Dave McCaffrey, as he prepped horses to race at Maywood, said small promotions won’t bring the turnaround that’s needed.
The business has gotten so bad in Illinois, he said, he now flies to two “racinos” in Delaware, splitting time where he can make money. At Maywood, McCaffrey said, he’d be lucky to see a $3,000 purse. In Delaware, where slot machines were added, the purses push $20,000, he said.
“Slots have completely revitalized racing in Delaware. At Maywood, in the paddock, there’s something depressing about it. In Delaware, it’s all about the youth movement,” he said. “The average guy working on horses over here is 60. Over there it’s 25.”
Frank Drucker, publicity director for Yonkers Raceway in New York, said the lowest, or bottom, purses more than doubled after the track reopened with slots in 2006. A “boatload” more people visit now — mostly for the slots — but it’s brought some new racing interest.
“The slots are the engine that drives the operation,” Drucker said. “We’d be lying if we said racing had a fan base close to what it did in its heydey.”
McCaffrey, who also heads the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, says Illinois’ crisis escalated after Indiana added slots in 2007.
By 2009, the number of registered track workers in Illinois dropped by about 1,200 while Indiana’s stayed steady.
“That’s the best example I can give you of how a state has robbed our state of jobs,” McCaffrey said.
“It pisses me off to no end,” he says, raising his voice. “It infuriates me. This is just another example of Illinois having its head up its collective, legislative ass.”
Attempts by the state to help the industry have fallen flat. In 1999, Illinois lawmakers carved out a 15-percent subsidy from wagering at a 10th casino, but that gambling venue still hasn’t gotten off the ground.
And a 2008 law that would allow the horse racing industry to skim 3 percent off the top from wagering at top-grossing casinos has been tied up in litigation. That law figured into ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s 2009 impeachment after he was caught on federal wiretaps scheming to shake down Balmoral Park President John Johnston — Duke Johnston’s brother — for a $100,000 campaign contribution as a condition for signing the legislation.
As recently as January, the industry was banking on yet another potential bailout from Springfield that would allow the state’s five operating racetracks to install 6,300 slot machines. But it too vanished.
After the measure passed the Senate as part of a larger casino-expansion package, its lead House sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), made the stunning decision not to call the bill for a House vote.
“We had all the necessary votes and for one reason or another, the bill just wasn’t called. We were shocked that the bill wasn’t called,” Duchossois said. “This is the first time our industry, everyone, the unions that worked for it, the horsemen from the breeders, the people who own the horses, the people that train the horses, the people who run the racetracks, everyone in the industry was put together.”
Lang became the object of suspicion over his decision to allow the bill to die on Jan. 11, when the clock effectively ran out on the old General Assembly. Did he do it to help Illinois’ nine casinos that don’t want competition from new casinos? Did he do it to help Joseph Berrios, an ally of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and chief lobbyist for the video-gaming industry that worked against Lang’s bill behind the scenes? Did he do it to minimize competition to Neil Bluhm, the developer of the state’s 10th casino?
“All the other allegations out there, that I did it for the casinos, that I did it for the video-gaming guys, that I did it to help one particular casino owner, is wrong, foolish and evidences a lack of understanding about who I am as a legislator,” Lang told the Sun-Times.
He said he lost four to six votes after a series of contentious and politically risky votes in the House that day to raise the state income tax, the cigarette tax and a tax on nursing homes, and after Gov. Quinn sent a “strong message” he was against the bill.
“With some of the votes peeling off, I certainly wasn’t sure we had the votes to pass it,” Lang said.
On Wednesday, Lang reintroduced a scaled-back gambling package that still provides for slot machines at tracks and expanded gambling positions at existing casinos. He said it will provide “many millions” of dollars for racing, which his bill described as “on the verge of extinction.” The legislation does not include new casinos.
The legislation, which would boost purses, would also generate up to $200 million in licensing fees for the slot machines plus up to $300 million more that could float construction bonds in the absence of dollars from video gaming. The legislation would allow up to $400 million to be channeled into new track facilities and renovations.
“It’s a pretty well-crafted bill that would enhance everybody from the top of the pyramid of horseracing to the bottom,” Lang said.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who owns or shares ownership of nearly 20 horses, blames inaction by Springfield and bad decisions over the years for the decline of racing.
“The industry made major mistakes in the ’50s. When television first came along, racing was on all the time. Then the tracks decided they didn’t want to give it away for free,” he said.
Now, Edgar says slot machines are the best hope to prop up racing by boosting purses, creating parity with surrounding states and saving the thousands of jobs the industry says it generates.
“Slots at the tracks will help keep those 35,000 jobs going in Illinois, which is hugely important,” he said.
Edgar, who gave up an ownership stake last year in an online horse racing-wagering company, said he was surprised when Lang abruptly pulled the plug on the gambling package last month.
“That was really bizarre to me. I’d talked to people earlier in the day. They thought they had the votes,” he said. “I understand the suspicion there.”
“If they’d call it and been two votes short, I don’t think I’d be shocked. But after Lang worked with them, promised them everything, then didn’t call the bill, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that.”
If the same storyline unfolds this spring and the slot machines or some other significant relief for the horseracing industry fails to materialize, Edgar is contemplating something that would serve as a final symbolic nail in horse racing’s coffin in Illinois.
“I have not yet moved my thoroughbreds, my mares or the rest of my harness horses over to Indiana, but it’s a possibility if something doesn’t happen here in Illinois,” he said.
“If nothing happens this session, you’ll see a pretty big exit from racing in Illinois. I don’t know if I’d completely get out, but I’d cut way back in Illinois. You have to come close to breaking even.”
After lunch, Vito Valerio, 78, taps another track patron on the back, looking for help putting on a jacket.
“What I need is, put my hand in my sleeve, pull it up just to my shoulders,” he says, his hand slightly shaking as he holds out his arm.
Valerio is one of the regulars here at Maywood and says he has been coming here since he was in high school.
“All my cronies are here. We have coffee. We bet. We have fun,” he said.
He remembers the days when the place was full, and there was something exciting about coming to the track. Now it’s changed.
“It’s a morgue in here now,” Valerio says.
Phil Marotta, a 75-year-old horseman, is another regular at Maywood and is friends with Valerio. He’s in the twilight years of his life, not unlike, perhaps, the betting venue he loves and has been coming to for 50 years.
Knowing the industry, as he does, Marotta doesn’t see salvation in slot machines. “I don’t think it’ll help the horsemen,” he sneers.
Then, sitting in his regular seat at the track, he admits he wasn’t familiar with some of the safeguards for horsemen in the legislation that Lang is pushing: “They’ll make more room for the slots and put us in a cubby hole.”
He complains about not making money and about the management. Still, there’s something about the thrill of the sport that keeps him coming back.
On this frigid February night, for one illusory moment, horse racing didn’t feel like it was at death’s door.
“Come on,” Marotta says softly, lifting his head in surprise as he looks out at the half-mile track through a viewing window.
The horse he owns, “Special Promises,” is making a strong run around the bend.
“Come on! Come on!” Marotta is now screaming. “COME ONNNNNN!”
Special Promises wins by half a length.Marotta thrusts his arms into the air and dashes outside into the winter cold without a coat.
Jumping in celebration as he heads to the track, he shouts: “We won $700!”