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OTBs or not to be? Racing Board split on letting Arlington owner take bets after shutting down track

Regulators at the Illinois Racing Board on Thursday tabled a request from Arlington to keep operating its off-track betting parlors even though owner Churchill Downs Inc. shut down the historic track nearly two months ago and announced a pending deal to sell the land to the Chicago Bears.

Arlington International Racecourse at 2200 Euclid Ave in Arlington Heights in September.
Arlington International Racecourse at 2200 Euclid Ave in Arlington Heights in September.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The corporate owner of shuttered Arlington International Racecourse has gotten out of the live horse racing game in Illinois — but it still wants a piece of the action.

Regulators at the Illinois Racing Board on Thursday tabled a request from Arlington to keep operating its off-track betting parlors even though owner Churchill Downs Inc. shut down the historic track nearly two months ago and announced a pending deal to sell the land to the Chicago Bears.

Arlington president Tony Petrillo said the company’s controversial request highlights its “commitment to thoroughbred racing in the state,” but Racing Board commissioner Alan Henry suggested they were trying to squeeze more money out of a struggling industry they’ve already abandoned.

“What I see in these requests seems an awful lot like the farmer who sells his prized Holstein [cow], then expects to still get paid for some of the milk it produces,” said Henry, a former Chicago Sun-Times sports editor.

Spirit One, right, from France, ridden by Loritz Mendizabal, leads the Arlington Million pack at Arlington International Racecourse in 2008.
Spirit One, right, from France, ridden by Loritz Mendizabal, leads the Arlington Million pack at Arlington International Racecourse in 2008.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

The final races at the 94-year-old track were run Sept. 25, leaving only two other tracks remaining in the state. Days later, Churchill Downs announced it would sell the 326 acres to the Bears, who are considering building a new stadium there.

Arlington didn’t apply for racing dates next year and had already passed on the opportunity to open a casino adjacent to the northwest suburban oval, drawing the ire of the horse owners and trainers represented by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. That group has said Churchill Downs is more concerned with protecting its other Illinois asset: Rivers Casino in nearby Des Plaines, which is the most lucrative casino in the state.

But the company still wants to take bets on races broadcast at its several OTBs scattered across the suburbs.

Petrillo said he would expect the OTBs to take about $76 million in bets, generating $8 million for purses and fees going to the Chicago area’s only surviving track, Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney.

Hawthorne Race Course pictured in October 2017.
Hawthorne Race Course pictured in October 2017.
Taylor Hartz/Sun-Times file

He estimated Churchill Downs would turn a profit of about $300,000. Meanwhile, Churchill Downs remains “committed to finding another solution and another location” to restart racing, Petrillo said.

Henry pushed back, saying “common sense tells me that inter-track wagering licenses should only be granted to viable track operators that actually want to engage in horse racing.”

The dispute hinges on interpreting a vague part of state horse racing law and whether it requires tracks to have actual racing dates in order to operate OTBs, or if they only need to have run races in the past calendar year.

Arlington International Racecourse in September, just days after the historic track held its final races.
Arlington International Racecourse in September, just days after the historic track held its final races.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Racing Board staffers sided with Arlington. The agency’s general counsel, John Gay, noted two other former suburban tracks — Maywood and Balmoral — operated OTBs even though they didn’t have any race dates before they shut down for good.

Board members voted 10-0 to delay a vote on the matter until their next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 16.

The Bears $197 million deal to acquire Arlington Park is expected to close in late 2022 or early 2023.