The first bid for a new south suburban “racino” crashed hard out of the starting gate, but a new gambling proposal to revive a nearly century-old racetrack could soon be off to the races if a Homewood developer gets his way.
Just over a month after Gov. J.B. Pritzker tanked plans for a combination horse racetrack-casino in Tinley Park when the name of a key partner surfaced in federal search warrants, a group led by real estate developer Philip Goldberg has landed a deal to buy Balmoral Park in south suburban Crete Township.
Goldberg said they’re “at the beginning” of their plans to bring harness racing back to Balmoral four years after its last race, when the historic track was shuttered and eventually sold in bankruptcy proceedings.
“It’s one of the most unique properties in Chicagoland, and it deserves to be put back into action,” Goldberg said. “Our plans include making it a premier sports and entertainment venue that Chicagoland and the south suburbs deserve.”
Goldberg’s group signed a contract to buy Balmoral for an undisclosed price from HITS Inc., the New York-based company that has hosted show horse productions at the track the last few years.
All the new owners need now is for state lawmakers to amend the Illinois’ massive gambling expansion law to allow for racing in Crete Township. But threading that legislative needle will be no small feat, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot can attest.
And representatives for the horsemen who would work at the harness track — who pushed to include it in the new gaming law — are skeptical about the dark horse Balmoral bid.
“There’s a shroud of mystery that’s concerning,” Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association executive director Tony Somone said. “Who is Phil Goldberg? He’s not a racetrack person, not a gaming person. We’d like to work together with this group, but we don’t really know who we’re dealing with.”
In addition to allowing the state’s three existing racetracks to apply for casino licenses, the new legislation signed into law over the summer allows for a new harness track, but it can only be located in one of a handful of townships in southern Cook County. Balmoral is in Will County.
State Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City, introduced an amendment on the final day of the November veto session in Springfield that would have added Crete to the gambling law.
But that bill failed — just like the measure Lightfoot pushed to lower taxes on the Chicago casino that was also included in the gambling expansion. A state-hired consultant said tax rates are too high for any potential Chicago casino developer to make a profit.
Adjusting that tax structure remains a priority for Lightfoot, to salvage a financial lifeline for the city’s desperately underfunded police and firefighter pension funds. She’ll get a second shot to persuade state lawmakers to pass a casino fix when they head back to Springfield early next year.
“I want the plan for Balmoral tied to whatever Chicago’s going to do,” Jones said. “Everyone wanted to make some changes to that casino bill. This bill we’re asking for makes sense.
“There’s already a track there. There’s already room for a casino. This is going to transform the area if it’s done right. I have a lot of confidence we can do it and bring immediate development.”
Jones said 11 communities neighboring Balmoral have signed a letter supporting a return to racing. But Goldberg’s plan could face opposition, especially from a handful of other south suburbs vying for a separate new standalone casino license earmarked for southern Cook County.
That was the case for Rick Heidner, the developer who partnered with Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey on the ill-fated Tinley Park racino plan.
They had appeared on the fast track to state approval until federal search warrants revealed in October that agents went looking for information on Heidner and his video gambling company when they raided state Sen. Martin Sandoval’s offices and home as part of a broadening corruption investigation.
That prompted Pritzker’s office to pull the plug by refusing to sell the state-owned land that had been pegged for the project.
Somone said he was disappointed to see Heidner’s plan fall through — and concerned that Goldberg’s group hasn’t reached out to the horsemen about their proposal.
“If there’s any way this can work out, I think it would be terrific. We have a lot of horsemen who live within 10 or 20 miles of there, and it was very successful for a long time,” Somone said. “I’m interested in making it work, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through.”
Heidner has not been accused of wrongdoing. And it’s not the first time he’s missed out on landing a track. He put in the high bid of $1.8 million to buy Balmoral Park out of bankruptcy in 2016, but lost out to HITS’ $1.6 million bid.
Before HITS, the previous owners of the track filed for bankruptcy when they were hit with an $82 million judgment in a federal lawsuit brought by a handful of state casinos. They alleged a Balmoral executive agreed to bribe now-imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to sign legislation forcing the casinos to share a portion of their revenue with Illinois’ struggling horse racing industry.
Goldberg said neither Heidner nor any previous Balmoral owners have a stake in this new bid.
And while shrinking purses have continued to decimate the industry over the years, Crete Village President Michael Einhorn called Balmoral an economic driver for an area home to generations of horse racing families. The track opened in 1926 as Lincoln Fields.
“It just means a lot to this economy. This would be a nice addition,” Einhorn said. “We should be given the opportunity to throw our hat in the ring. That’s what we’re asking for. If people give us the opportunity, we think we have something that no one else has.”