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Tinley Park ‘racino’ harness track off to the races with Illinois Racing Board approval

The proposed track at the site of the defunct Tinley Park Mental Health Center is poised to be the first one to open in Illinois since 1946.

Harness racing at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996.
Harness racing at Hawthorne Race Course in 1996. File photo.
Chicago Sun Times archives

A new horse racing track and casino proposed for Tinley Park has made it out of the starting gate.

Overshadowed at Tuesday’s Illinois Racing Board meeting by uncertainty over the future of Arlington International Racecourse was the approval of a racing license for Playing in the Park LLC, which is now poised to open the state’s first new racetrack in nearly 75 years.

The southwest suburban harness racing venture is headed by Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey and real estate developer Rick Heidner, who also runs one of the state’s largest video gambling machine companies.

They say they’ll have a temporary track ready for live racing by the end of next year, at the site of the shuttered Tinley Park Mental Health Center at 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue.

The Racing Board approved their 12 requested race dates between Dec. 6 and Dec. 29, 2020. They’ll still need approval from the Illinois Gaming Board to launch up to 1,200 slot machines and table games.

Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey (left) and real estate developer Rick Heidner (right).
Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey (left) and real estate developer Rick Heidner (right) pictured at a September 17, 2019, Illinois Racing Board meeting.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

The last track to open in Illinois was Maywood Park in 1946. It shut down in 2015 along with Balmoral Park, as the horse racing industry has been decimated by shrinking purses over the last several decades.

Those closures left Hawthorne as the only harness track operating in Illinois — and one of only three racetracks still in business, along with the thoroughbred operations at Arlington and Downstate Fairmount Park.

Carey and Heidner were the only applicants for the new track authorized as part of Illinois’ massive gambling expansion signed into law earlier this summer by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Matteson Village Administrator Anthony Burton (left) and Matteon Mayor Sheila Chalmers-Currin, pictured at a Sept. 17, 2019, Illinois Racing Board meeting.
Matteson Village Administrator Anthony Burton (left) and Matteson Mayor Sheila Chalmers-Currin, pictured at a Sept. 17, 2019, Illinois Racing Board meeting.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Matteson Mayor Sheila Chalmers-Currin slammed the racino licensing process as “a free ride” for track owners while several south suburban towns have to compete for a new casino license authorized to open among several neighboring townships.

Under the new gambling law, a new racino needed approval from any other existing racetrack within a 35-miles radius — and the only townships eligible for a racino are all within 35 miles of Carey’s Hawthorne Race Course.

Chalmers-Currin has argued the two new gambling dens won’t be financially feasible in such proximity to each other.

She’s leading a group of black south suburban mayors calling on state lawmakers to revise the new gambling law during the fall veto session, by putting the racino on hold while allowing the south suburban casino application process to move forward.

“After waiting over 15 years, many towns have been planning for a casino — not a racino — and can’t wait any longer,” Chalmers-Currin told Racing Board members last week. “The Southland doesn’t have the time to wait for this long-awaited economic opportunity engine.”

After receiving approval on Tuesday, Carey dismissed the idea his team got a free ride.

“The Legislature handled that. I think they handled it the right way. They recognized there’s an agri-business called horse racing, and part of that agri-business is standardbred [harness] racing. ... The Legislature is the one that put that in place, and we agree with that.”

Carey also said he “absolutely” thinks the racino and casino will be able to coexist without cannibalizing the south suburban market.

He noted the entertainment options he and Heidner have rolled into their $450 million plan. They say racing can begin with a temporary track setup next year on the 120-acre site, but their five-year plan includes a 4,000-seat grandstand, a concert festival ground in the middle of the mile-long track, plus a full backstretch, hotel, sportsbook, parking garage and an upscale restaurant.

Carey also lauded the $1 billion-plus overall investment in the horse-racing industry with 2020’s racing dates, including the Tinley Park project and racino construction at Hawthorne and Fairmount.

“It’s going to be really cool,” he said.

Read their full Racing Board application here: