CDI puts Arlington on market for development; ITHA expresses disappointment

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Feb. 24, 2021

Churchill Downs Inc. Feb. 23 said it has launched a process to sell Arlington Park and the 326 acres on which it sits in Arlington Heights, Ill., effectively ending racing at the storied facility after the 2021 meet.

CDI in a release said it is committed to running the April 30-Sept. 25 meet. The company said it doesn’t expect a sale of the Arlington site to close prior to the conclusion of Arlington’s 2021 race meet or that the conduct of the sale process will impact Arlington’s racing operations this year.

CDI has more than hinted it planned to end racing at Arlington. In September 2019, it opted not to apply for a casino license—something it had sought for decades. CDI said the tax rate along with having to devote gaming revenue to purses would make for an untenable operation.

“Arlington’s ideal location in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, together with direct access to downtown Chicago via an on-site Metra rail station, presents a unique redevelopment opportunity, CDI Chief Executive Officer Bil Carstanjen said. “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.

“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. We are exploring potential options with the state and other constituents and remain optimistic that we can find solutions that work for the state, local communities and the thousands of Illinoisans who make their living directly or indirectly from Thoroughbred horse racing. We are committed to the Illinois Thoroughbred racing industry and will consider all options in working toward opportunities for it to continue into the future.”

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association issued a statement following the announcement. The ITHA reviewed developments over the past several years and called actions by CDI “brazen.”

“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 ITHA statement said. “Churchill spent two decades lobbying Illinois lawmakers for the authority to develop a casino at Arlington. But 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 (Carstanjen) 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, announcing its plan to sell the Arlington property, Churchill obviously is disingenuous when it claims that it will move the Arlington racing license to elsewhere in Illinois.”

“The license is not Churchill’s to move,” ITHA President Mike Campbell said. “Moreover, the notion that a seasoned gaming operator would relocate a racing license away from a state-of-the-art, modern racing facility near the heart of the Chicago metropolitan region to some yet-to-be-determined location is absurd. 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.”

Campbell said the Illinois gaming expansion law that authorized racetrack slot machines and sports betting was intended to boost overnight purses and otherwise invigorate Thoroughbred racing for the purpose of creating jobs, sparking economic opportunity and diversifying the tax base for the state and local communities. Though CDI took a pass on Arlington, Hawthorne Race Course and Fairmount Park applied for casino licenses, and their construction projects are well under way.