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New suburban racetrack comes spinning out of the turns of gambling bill

It would be the first new Chicago area track to open for betting on the horses since west suburban Maywood Park began harness racing in 1946. 

Harness racing at Hawthorne Racecourse in 1996.
Harness racing at Hawthorne Racecourse in 1996.
Chicago Sun Times File Photo.

In addition to a new casino, south suburban Cook County is in line for its own separate new “racino” — a combination horse racing track and casino — under the state’s massive gambling expansion legislation.

The track, which would be devoted to harness racing, would have all the rights of current and existing Illinois racetracks. That soon will include the ability to offer slot machines, table games and sports betting.

It would be the first new Chicago area track to open for betting on the horses since west suburban Maywood Park began harness racing in 1946.

If it’s true that the devil is always in the details, it may take weeks, months or even years to fully unpack all the potentially devilish provisions in the state’s new gambling bill — detailed in a 716-page amendment with its own clarifying amendment of 816 pages.

But here are just a few interesting tidbits gleaned from a first dive into the actual language approved by lawmakers over the weekend.

• Rosemont, which long sought its own casino under the late Mayor Donald Stephens only to be thwarted by the Illinois Gaming Board amid accusations of mob influence, could be back in the gambling hunt.

The legislation allows for up to seven sports betting licenses to be issued to sports facilities that seat more than 17,000 persons. The Allstate Arena in Rosemont seats 18,500, making it one of eight sports venues in the state that would appear to qualify.

The other seven are Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, Soldier Field, United Center, SeatGeek Stadium (Bridgeview), Chicagoland Speedway (Joliet) and World Wide Technology Raceway (Metro East).

Gary Mack, a spokesman for Rosemont, confirmed the Allstate Arena qualifies for a sports betting license under the new law and will explore the possibility of applying.

“Yes, we’ll look at it. We’re not sure if we want it. It’s going to cost a heckuva lot of money,” Mack said, referring to fees that would be owed the state in addition to the cost of investing in a facility.

Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens in 1993.
Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens in 1993.
Sun-Times File Photo.

• Newly permitted casinos may operate temporary gambling facilities for up to two years with a possible one-year extension while waiting for a permanent structure to be built.

• As previously reported, Chicago would be permitted to conduct gambling at its two airports under the new legislation, limited to slot machines.

But any airport gambling would come out of the 4,000 gaming positions the city is allowed for a new casino, making the possibility potentially less attractive.

Gambling operations at the airport would have to be conducted in a secured area beyond TSA checkpoints and available only to airline passengers who are part of a private club, not to the general public.

Meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board on Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker cast doubt on whether the city will pursue gambling at the airports.

• Also previously reported was that sports betting would be prohibited on athletic events involving Illinois colleges or universities. But the legislation goes so far as to also explicitly bar gambling on sporting events involving kindergarteners through 12th graders.

• Each horse racing track may conduct sports wagering at three of its off-track betting parlors, in addition to doing so at its track.

The new south suburban racino would have to be located in either Bloom, Bremen, Calumet, Orland, Rich, Thornton or Worth Township. The competing new casino slated for the south suburbs would be located in one of those same townships, excluding Orland. The twist there is that the early favorite to land the racino is commercial real estate developer Rick Heidner, who is also an owner of Gold Rush Gaming, one of the state’s largest video gambling terminal operators.

The Illinois Derby is held at Sportsman’s Park racetrack in 1998.
The Illinois Derby is held at Sportsman’s Park racetrack in 1998.
Chicago Sun Times File Photo

Sources said Heidner is eyeing the location of the former Tinley Park Mental Health Center in Orland Township.

Just three years ago, Heidner purchased the site of the former Balmoral Park horse racing track in Crete, but that is located in Will County and would be ineligible under the legislation.

The only Illinois racetrack currently offering harness racing is Hawthorne Racecourse in west-suburban Stickney.

The legislation requires that the new south suburban racetrack racino and the competing area casino be at least 35 miles apart, unless the racetrack operator gives written consent to them being closer.

Also on Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she tried for the city-owned casino her predecessors favored, but ultimately agreed to a privately owned facility more than triple the size of existing Illinois casinos to get the help Chicago desperately needs to bankroll police and fire pensions.

“It’s not that I didn’t [insist on municipal ownership]. We tried, but it was very clear that was a proposal that wasn’t going to make its way through the General Assembly,” she said.

The roadblock to municipal ownership wasn’t necessarily the burgeoning City Hall corruption scandal that threatens to bring down Ald. Edward Burke (14th), even though the timing of last week’s racketeering indictment of Burke couldn’t have been worse for the city’s argument.

“Chicago is the economic center of the state. But the dynamics built up over many decades [that] Chicago can’t be treated differently or in a special way by members of the General Assembly. ... Particularly for people Downstate, they’ve got to go home to their constituents,” Lightfoot said.

“The legislative process is about compromise. We were able to get an important marker down to start the process for a Chicago casino. … People have been talking about a Chicago casino since casino gambling came to this state almost 30 years ago. This is the first time we’ve actually got concrete steps in the right direction to make that hope a reality.”