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Running their own race
John Schulian
December 12, 1977
You can bet on it—those Chicago messengers who promise to take your wager to the track aren't athletes. Many are working an ingenious, lucrative bookie racket
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December 12, 1977

Running Their Own Race

You can bet on it—those Chicago messengers who promise to take your wager to the track aren't athletes. Many are working an ingenious, lucrative bookie racket

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The state and the tracks seem most concerned that the betting handles have dropped—and with that their and the horsemen's share of the profits. During the first 130 days of the current Chicago season, $7.5 million less than last year was put through the pari-mutuel machines. Horsemen who lost $825,000 in purses because of this are fleeing to financially greener pastures.

For their part, the tracks are using any handy statistic to gain sympathy, but they, too, are responsible for the slumping business. As Johnston says, "Even if there were no messenger services, we'd still be in bad shape."

Less than 20 years ago, Illinois was an important racing state and Arlington Park was its showcase. Horses from Calumet Farm and Greentree could always be found there, and anyone who wanted to crack Chicago's Social Register had a private box. The track was pushed to its eminence by its owner, a voluble reformed bookie named Ben Lindheimer. After he died in 1960 and his adopted daughter, Marje Everett, took over, Arlington began going to seed. With it went most every other Chicago track.

Blame it on scandal, blame it on sloth. You can't go wrong either way. For scandal, there was Everett becoming a dominant figure in the track stock fraud scheme that sent former Governor Otto Kerner to prison. For sloth, there was the racing surface at Arlington, which was allowed to turn soft and powdery and became a hazard to horses.

Since the Madison Square Garden Corporation took over Arlington in 1971, it has kept up appearances by running an occasional appealing stakes race. But increasingly meager purses the rest of the time have persuaded major stables to shake the money trees that grow on the racing-rich coasts. Those stables send their second-string horses to Illinois, win and then ship the animals home again. " Illinois," says one horse owner and trainer, "is like an island."

Governor James Thompson, who was the federal prosecutor who nailed Kerner, has allied himself with the horsemen. He supported the law banning the messenger services. In truth, after well-publicized rumors of lawmakers being bribed with mob money to vote against the bill, the members of the legislature really had no choice but to pass it.

The Chicago police then began to snuff out "the bad bookies," focusing on the largest operations—Pegasus, Mr. Lucky and Finish Line Express. However, the state Appellate Court did the unexpected in July, granting a temporary injunction against the law, which allowed the services to expand at will.

"The decision made them more brazen than ever," Masterson says. They taped signs in their windows toasting the decision. Shops were opened in virgin territory in the southern end of the state.

Johnston, whose Chicago Downs Association is presently operating a thoroughbred meeting at Sportsman's Park, may have come up with the best solution to the tracks' problems. Last month he attacked the services where they were hurting the tracks most—in the gimmick races. He decreed the daily double would no longer be the first two races of the day. The trifecta would no longer be the last race. Bettors would have to come to the track to find out which races were which. The information would be posted on closed-circuit TV an hour before post time. It would upset their betting habits, Johnston knew, but if gimmick races were announced at the last minute there would be less chance of drugging incidents. And if the services did not know which races to book as gimmicks, they would lose money.

"Our business has been cut to the bone—we're dying," a Pegasus official says, but the track people have trouble believing that. Finish Line has been sending scouts to the tracks who phone their office with the information as soon as it is posted. Just to rub it in, Finish Line is offering re-creations of each race to those visiting its parlor. "These guys are smart," says Robert Hart Jr., Sportsman's mutuels director, pointing out that the track's handle is still 11% lower than last year's. "Maybe they're smarter than us."

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