Arlington International Racecourse did not submit an application for 2022 racing dates prior to the Illinois Racing Board’s Friday deadline, further raising the likelihood horse racing at the north Chicago suburban track will come to an end in September after 94 seasons.
The IRB put out a press release regarding which tracks submitted applications for 2022 race schedules, and Arlington was not among them. It is the second strong indication this week that track owner Churchill Downs Inc. has no interest in continuing racing beyond the fall. The Daily Herald reported Monday that unionized employees received formal layoff notices, with track President Tony Petrillo adding a note that read, “The entire Racecourse facility is being permanently closed in conjunction with the expectation of the sale.”
On Thursday, the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association put out a statement on its website with the expectation Arlington would not submit an application, laying blame at Churchill Downs for scuttling the possibility of a future owner being able to race there in 2022. CDI, which put the track up for sale in February, has a 62% stake in Rivers Casino in nearby Des Plaines — 12 miles from the track. Churchill Downs surprised many in the state in August 2019 when it opted not to pursue a racino license for Arlington after lobbying for years to have the opportunity.
That chance was provided in June 2019 when Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed a massive gaming expansion bill that also legalized sports wagering, but Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said at the time of the decision that the “effective tax rate that would be approximately 17.5% – 20% higher than the existing Chicagoland casinos due to contributions to the Thoroughbred purse account” would create a disadvantage in the state’s “hyper-competitive gaming market.”
Since that decision, Arlington and the ITHA have had an acrimonious relationship, which carried into bruising negotiations last year before the sides eventually agreed to a two-year deal in June 2020 to conduct live racing. The track’s signature event, the Mr. D Stakes, is scheduled for Aug. 14.
“Churchill Downs is writing the book on bad faith, so this latest move is disappointing but not surprising,” said Mike Campbell, president of the ITHA. “Churchill’s commitment to stopping any gaming at Arlington from competing with Rivers is the worst-kept secret in Illinois. Company executives have practically contorted themselves to explain and justify their anti-competitive behavior while carefully avoiding any acknowledgment that their true motive appears to be eliminating the threat of competition from Arlington.”
“It’s clear that Churchill Downs cares exclusively about corporate profit and that all other considerations are incidental,” Campbell said. “All we can do in this case is hope that Churchill will recognize the utility, for the sake of its interest in selling Arlington Park to the most capable bidder, of filing the dates application to preserve the possibility of future racing at the track.”
CDI remains mum on Arlington sale process
Churchill Downs Inc. did not disclose any new information Thursday regarding the sale of the track during its second-quarter earnings conference call. It ended the period for accepting bids June 15 and had originally set a target of announcing a winning bidder this quarter.
“Regarding Arlington Park, we have received numerous bids from interested parties for the land and are working through the process to select the final winning bid,” Carstanjen said during the earnings call. “We will provide an update when we select the winning bidder.”
He said Rivers’ phased opening of its $87 million extension is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2022 and add 725 gaming positions to what is already the state’s top revenue generator among its 10 casinos.
Churchill’s decision not to pursue the racino in 2019 has kept a cloud over the future of horse racing in Illinois even as the state’s other two tracks — Hawthorne Race Course in suburban Chicago and the recently renamed FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing on the other side of the state in Collinsville near St. Louis — move toward the end goal of opening racinos. Both of those tracks submitted schedules for 2022, with Hawthorne proposing 365 programs and the formerly named Fairmount Park proposing 150.
CDI announced in February it would sell Arlington Park, and the intrigue around the Kentucky-based company’s eventual sale of the 326-acre property jumped when it was confirmed the NFL’s Chicago Bears were among the bidders. The Bears also made Rivers’ sports betting arm BetRivers their exclusive sportsbook partner last month, but it is undetermined if there are any connections being made or whether the team is using the bid as negotiating leverage for commitments to upgrade its current home of Soldier Field.
The Village of Arlington Heights has tried to keep open the possibility of having a buyer continue racing on the grounds, passing an ordinance prohibiting CDI from including negative use restrictions as part of the sale.
Pritzker tabs Doria to Illinois Racing Board
Pritzker brought the state’s regulatory horse racing body another step closer to a full complement of 11 commissioners last week with the addition of Beth Doria. She is the fourth commissioner the governor has named to the board in the calendar year, joining Alan Henry, John Stephan, and Lydia Gray, and there are now only two vacancies remaining.
Doria has worked across multiple state departments including the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, the Bureau of Tourism, and the Illinois Lottery. She recently had been serving as executive director for the non-profit Federation of Women Contractors. Doria, described as an avid equestrienne, also is a member of the Cook County Farm Bureau and serves on its Legislative Committee.
“I want to welcome Beth Doria as our newest commissioner on the Illinois Racing Board” Domenic DiCera, the IRB executive director, said in a statement. “Over the course of her career Commissioner Doria has been a dedicated public servant for the State of Illinois and I look forward to working with her on the Illinois Racing Board.”