Illinois Racing Board Chair Seeks Talk with Churchill Downs Over Arlington Park

Posted on: June 24, 2021, 02:10h. 

Last updated on: June 24, 2021, 10:15h.

The chairman of the Illinois Racing Board (IRB) is seeking a conversation with Louisville-based Churchill Downs Incorporated to ascertain their plans once they’ve sold the historic Arlington International Racecourse in the Chicago area.

Arlington Park
The chairman of the Illinois Racing Board has requested a call with Churchill Downs officials now that a deadline for proposals to purchase Arlington International Racecourse has passed. Churchill Downs officials plan to sell the Chicago-area track and its 325-acre property for redevelopment purposes. (Image: Arlington Park)

Dan Beiser made those comments toward the end of Tuesday’s IRB meeting. He told the board’s commissioners that he directed Executive Director Domenic DiCera to schedule a call between himself, DiCera, and Churchill Downs representatives.

Hopefully, it will become a reality, soon,” Beiser said.

Beiser said that now was the appropriate time for the discussion. He added that he did not want to have that conversation as Churchill Downs was soliciting bids for the 326-acre property in Arlington Heights.

The deadline for submissions was last week.

Churchill officials announced in February the site was up for sale, with CEO Bill Carstanjen saying the track offered “a unique redevelopment opportunity” for interested bidders.

The company has not revealed any information about the number of bids it received. Two groups – one being the NFL’s Chicago Bears – have voluntarily revealed they submitted a proposal.

‘Uncertainty’ Hurting Arlington Horsemen

The IRB chair said his reason for wanting the call was two-fold. First, Beiser said he wanted to impress upon Churchill Downs officials how the “uncertainty” surrounding Arlington has affected local horsemen. In addition, he wants to see how much the company will be willing to disclose about its plans for both the short- and long-term in the state.

Churchill Downs, which also owns a majority stake in the nearby Rivers Casino Des Plaines, has said it plans to keep the license and wishes to operate a track elsewhere, be it in the Chicago area or downstate.

Back in February, the company said it did not anticipate closing on any sale before the track’s summer meet ended on Sept. 25.

Commissioner: Illinois Needs to Step Up

Churchill Downs has called the track a redevelopment opportunity and has plans for the racing license, which would have to be approved by the IRB. It seems like a longshot hope that the company would sell the track to an entity wishing to maintain racing.

But IRB Commissioner Alan Henry holds out that hope.

Speaking before Beiser Tuesday, Henry cited comments recently made by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar to the Arlington Heights Daily Herald. Edgar said that the state has a vested interest in the track since taxpayer money has been invested there.

Henry also noted the Illinois Horse Racing Act, a 1975 law that made it an official state policy to stimulate growth in racing and to ensure it remains competitive.

It’s time for the key players, and that includes the state, to step up and make a deal that will result in the continuation of racing at Arlington Park,” Henry said.

Besides the Bears, the other group to come forward is led by former Arlington track president Roy Arnold. That group’s plan involves keeping the track open.

Analysis: Why a Racing Bid Likely Won’t Succeed

Henry expressed hope that a racing-focused bid might be the highest offer. However, even if that happens, it’s likely Churchill Downs would either reject the bid or command a premium price in return. That’s because any entity that would seek to race at Arlington would almost assuredly apply for a casino gaming license.

An Arlington Park casino would be the closest competitor to Rivers.

The 2019 expanded gaming law allowed tracks to apply for casino licenses. However, Churchill Downs, which acquired its stake in Rivers earlier that year, shocked some in the state when it announced it would not apply for a license. Company officials did not cite ownership in Rivers as a reason.

Instead, company officials raised concerns about the tax structure that they said made a casino unprofitable there.

Illinois horsemen, who have battled with Churchill Downs over purses at Arlington in recent years, have expressed skepticism regarding the company’s plans. It has asked the state attorney general, via a letter, to investigate whether Churchill Downs violated state or federal antitrust laws by “quashing the potential” for gaming at Arlington Park.