Churchill Downs Inc. To Sell Arlington International Racecourse

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Churchill Downs Inc. on Tuesday announced its intention to sell Arlington International Racecourse, raising the likelihood the horse racing track in the northwest suburbs of Chicago will be redeveloped and lower the number of tracks in the state of Illinois from three to two.

Churchill Downs has owned Arlington since 2000, but it had been gradually winding down its horse racing there in recent years. On a conference call to discuss second-quarter earnings last July, CEO of CDI Bill Carstanjen mentioned the track “will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point.” He added Tuesday the 326-acre tract “presents a unique redevelopment opportunity” for the eventual buyer.

“We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers, in collaboration with the Village of Arlington Heights, to transition this storied location to its next phase,” Carstanjen said in a statement. “In the meantime, we are very committed to pursuing the relocation of Arlington’s racing license to another community in the Chicagoland area or elsewhere in the state.”

In an email to Hoosier State Bets, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, said, “While we are awaiting details on Churchill Downs’ plans to maintain horse racing in Illinois, the administration will work with all stakeholders to develop an appropriate solution. We remain committed to ensuring a strong racing industry in our state.”

The state’s other two racetracks — Hawthorne Park in the south Chicago suburb of Stickney and the formerly named Fairmount Park in Collinsville on the western side of Illinois near the Missouri border — are both in development to expand their tracks into racinos that will also feature sports wagering. Fairmount Park renamed itself FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing last November.

Churchill Downs publicly announced it was not going to seek a sports betting-specific license for Arlington during that second-quarter earnings call in July 2020.

ITHA releases blistering statement ripping CDI

The announcement to sell Arlington, as expected, was not well received by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. The ITHA and Churchill Downs Inc. have had a combative relationship since CDI surprisingly opted not to pursue a racino license for Arlington in August 2019, with Carstanjen claiming at the time 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.”

The lingering animosity from CDI’s decision was readily apparent in the bruising negotiations between the sides, with Arlington represented by track President Tony Petrillo before a two-year contract was signed last June — more than five months after legally required by law — that covered the pandemic-shortened 2020 racing season and the full one slated to begin April 30.

The ITHA released a statement on its website Tuesday, excoriating Churchill Downs — recalling its intense lobbying of state lawmakers to bring a racino to Illinois before changing tack and noting the gradual erosion of support at Arlington following CDI’s purchase of a 62% stake of Rivers Casino in nearby Des Plaines for $407 million in March 2019.

“Illinois thoroughbred owners and trainers appreciate the opportunity to race this year at Arlington Park, a world-class track, but are disappointed that Churchill Downs will renege on its longstanding promise to preserve and grow jobs in Illinois racing while also serving the best interests of Illinois taxpayers,” the statement started before focusing its ire on CDI.

“…since purchasing the majority stake in the nearby Rivers Casino, Churchill has all but abandoned any meaningful commitment to Illinois racing. Churchill abruptly reversed course, deep-sixed that Arlington development plan, and instead devoted itself to ensuring that Arlington could not become a gaming competitor to Rivers.

Churchill’s anticompetitive behavior was so brazen, in fact, that its CEO publicly dismissed the prospect that racing might continue at Arlington under another owner and insisted the property would “have a higher and better purpose for something else.” Even in its statement today, Churchill obviously is disingenuous when it claims that it will move the Arlington racing license to elsewhere in Illinois.”

ITHA President Mike Campbell noted separately in the statement that “the license is not Churchill’s to move” and added “Churchill is just trying to obfuscate from the fact that it cares only about maximizing profit and will gladly sacrifice the spirit of Illinois law and the livelihood of working Illinoisans to serve its greed.”

Rivers Casino recently unveiled an $87 million renovation plan that would expand the venue to the maximum 2,000 gaming positions, and it is also among the bidders to construct a casino in Waukegan, one of six locations permitted in the gaming expansion bill Pritzker signed into law in June 2019.

That bill also allowed tracks to pursue racino licenses.

What appears to be the long farewell

If this is indeed the final season of racing at Arlington, it will be highlighted by two Grade I stakes races, the Arlington Million and the Beverly D. There will be 68 days of live racing and 220 total host programs for its 94th season.

At the tail end of last season, Arlington permitted up to 300 guests for live racing, as allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The track has yet to announce live attendance plans for the upcoming season, but it noted on the landing page of its website that “General capacity restrictions, seating, and ticketing layouts are awaiting State approval.”

Churchill Downs Inc. purchased Arlington Racecourse in June 2000 in a $72 million stock purchase from Richard Duchossois. The acquisition came during a period of consolidation for the horse racing industry as CDI also purchased Ellis Park in Kentucky, Calder in Miami Gardens, Fla., and Hollywood Park in California to keep pace with Frank Stronach, who had purchased high-profile tracks Santa Anita in California and Gulfstream Park in Florida.

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Chris Altruda has been a sportswriter with ESPN, The Associated Press, and STATS over more than two decades. He recently expanded into covering sports betting and gambling around the Midwest.

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