Arlington Heights Mayor Remains Hopeful Historic Illinois Track Stays Open Even as Purse Contract Impasse Lingers

Posted on: January 21, 2020, 08:06h. 

Last updated on: January 21, 2020, 10:25h.

The village of Arlington Heights, Ill., embraces horse racing. So much so that the town’s seal incorporates a horse’s head into the “A” for the city, a symbol of its relationship with Arlington International Racecourse.

Arlington International Racecourse can still draw a crowd, as shown here for the running of the 2015 American St. Leger Stakes. Officials in Arlington Heights, Ill., remain hopeful the track, a fixture in the community, has a long-term future in horse racing. (Image: Marswilsalc/Wikimedia Commons)

Mayor Tom Hayes has been a city official in the Chicago suburb for nearly 30 years, and he said talk of a possible closure of the town’s track is nothing new.

“There’s been a concern almost every year about the track closing and things tend to work themselves out,” he told on Monday evening. “So, I’m very hopeful that they’re going to work themselves out for everybody’s benefit again this year.”

On Tuesday afternoon, members of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and officials from the track, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., will be meeting with the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) in Chicago. The two parties were supposed to have a contract in place by the start of the year regarding purses for the 2020 meet, which begins in May.

The horsemen and the track remain furlongs apart. ITHA President Mike Campbell said the sides are about $4 million off, which works out to about an average of $60,000 a day in purse money for the scheduled 68-day meet.

The side Hayes and the village are backing in the fight are the workers. More than 1,000 people work at the track, and another 500 or so work for vendors or other parties there. There are the 2,500 seasonal jobs behind the scenes on the backstretch of the largest employer in the 13th-largest city in Illinois.

In September, when the IRB considered suspending Arlington’s 2020 racing dates in response to Churchill Downs’s decision not to pursue a casino license, Hayes wrote to the IRB urging them to think about those jobs. He said closing “the crown jewel” of Illinois racing would leave an indelible mark on the state.

Redevelopment Possibilities ‘A Last Resort’

The track creates about $1 million in tax revenue for Arlington Heights. That’s not an insignificant amount for a community with a $177 million budget, but Hayes said there’s more to the relationship between the track and community than just money.

However, civic leaders are at least bracing for a future where that relationship’s over, even as they hope it continues.

Certainly, we are starting to look at possibilities for redevelopment of the area,” Hayes told “Of course, it’s all not owned by the Village of Arlington Heights, so we could only do so much to encourage certain types of development on that property. But that’s kind of a last resort. We’re certainly hoping that the racetrack will stay there for many years to come.

“I think that if it were to be redeveloped, we might see actually more direct financial income and benefit from something other than a racetrack there. But the racetrack means so much more to us than direct financial benefit because it is our largest employer. It is our largest attraction.”

Looking at Options to Keep Arlington Viable

As someone in the middle of the fight, Hayes sees points on both sides.

He would like to see the higher purses that the horsemen want, as it would lead to a higher quality of racing at the track, which dates back nearly a century. However, he can understand why Churchill Downs, which owns a majority stake in the nearby Rivers Des Plaines casino, chose not to pursue a casino license, as he could drive 15 minutes from his office in the Village Hall and be at Rivers.

Hayes has said he’s had a chance to talk with Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen on a few occasions about Arlington International’s long-term viability.

“I certainly understand their business decisions, but I would hope that they would again be mindful of what it would take to ensure that Arlington Park stays open for many years to come,” said Hayes.

The mayor added that he didn’t care who owned the track as long as they were invested in keeping Arlington open. Reports have circulated that a couple of groups have considered making an offer on Arlington International.

What would improve the odds for Arlington’s long-term health is additional revenue, Hayes said. That could be from revenue sharing with existing casinos and racetracks.

It also could come from revisions to the expanded gaming law that Illinois lawmakers passed last year. When Churchill Downs announced last year it would not pursue a casino at Arlington, it cited the tax structure under the law as its reason why it didn’t seek a license for up to 1,200 slot machines and table games.

Hayes said he does believe there’s a willingness from state lawmakers to revisit that law, as it’s affected more than just Arlington International.

“I know that the buy-in was steep, and so we have certainly expressed a concern about that,” Hayes said. “And I know our local legislators were receptive to looking at ways to make it a little more friendly to existing businesses, because they want to see the track stay open as well.”