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Whoa! Arlington owners say hold your horses on sale talks

A representative for horse trainers and owners said two groups were interested in buying the racetrack, but nothing is on the table and they’re not for sale, according to Churchill Downs.

Chester House, ridden by Jerry Bailey, wins the Grade I $2,000,000 Arlington Million at Arlington International Racecourse in 2000.
Chester House, ridden by Jerry Bailey, wins the Grade I $2,000,000 Arlington Million at Arlington International Racecourse in 2000.
AP

The future of horse racing at Arlington International Racecourse is still up in the air, but the 92-year-old racetrack is not being sold anytime soon.

That’s what Arlington executives said at an Illinois Racing Board meeting Tuesday, as state horse racing regulators quizzed them about reports that at least two groups had shown interest in making bids for the track.

Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Mike Campbell told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this month that separate groups interested in buying Arlington had approached him, asking if horse owners and trainers would support them in a potential bid that would include adding a casino to the Arlington Heights oval.

Arlington International Racecourse president Tony Petrillo pictured at a September 2019 Illinois Racing Board meeting.
Arlington International Racecourse president Tony Petrillo pictured at a September 2019 Illinois Racing Board meeting.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

But no one has put an offer on the table to buy Arlington from Churchill Downs Inc., according to the corporate gambling heavyweight that bought the track from the Duchossois family two decades ago.

Asked by Racing Board chairman Jeffrey Brincat if there is “anything pending anybody could construe as an offer,” Arlington president Tony Petrillo said: “Not that I’m aware of.” An attorney for the Louisville-based corporation told Racing Board members likewise.

The track’s not up for sale anyway — and they’re not seeking bids, either, a Churchill Downs spokeswoman told the Sun-Times after the meeting.

The corporation did not respond to initial requests for comment after Campbell first said the two unidentified groups told him they were interested in turning Arlington into a “racino.” Campbell never suggested to the Sun-Times that an offer had been made — but said his organization would support a new owner who adds newly authorized casino games.

Rumors of a potential sale come as the track remains deadlocked in contract talks with the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association over a labor deal ahead of the Arlington racing season that’s scheduled to start May 1.

Both sides told board members they’ve reached an impasse over purse levels, the money paid out to winning horse owners. The horse owners and trainers are seeking an average of $200,000 in daily purse money, an amount Petrillo said “would cripple us.” Churchill Downs has offered purses averaging about $142,000, he said.

Michael Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, speaks after a September 2019 Racing Board meeting.
Michael Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, speaks after a September 2019 Racing Board meeting.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

But Campbell said the owners and trainers have taken concessions in contract talks over the years under the presumption purses would balloon under new gambling legislation they championed along with Churchill Downs. Illinois’ new gambling law signed over the summer allows the state’s struggling tracks to become “racinos” with slot machines and table games, but Churchill Downs controversially turned down that option in August, blaming high state taxes. They haven’t committed to live racing beyond the 2021 season.

Horse owners took that as the ultimate betrayal, saying Churchill Downs was more interested in protecting itself from gambling competition against Rivers Casino, the property it owns in nearby Des Plaines.

Campbell said he still thinks it’s “50-50” whether there’ll be any racing at all this year at Arlington.

“The ball is in their court,” he said.