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Off-track betting officially off the table for corporate owner of shuttered Arlington Park

Churchill Downs Inc. wanted to keep operating six OTBs despite selling the suburban racetrack, but one state regulator said officials “should not be enabling them.”

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

If you can’t bet at the track, you can’t bet off it, either.

That’s where a divided state panel landed Thursday in shooting down a controversial request from the corporate owner of Arlington International Racecourse, which wanted to keep operating its off-track betting parlors even though they’ve cashed out of the Illinois horse racing game with a deal to sell the storied oval to the Chicago Bears.

The bid from Churchill Downs Inc. failed under a 5-5 vote from the deadlocked Illinois Racing Board. Staffers for the agency had recommended approving the measure, arguing that state law allows inactive tracks to keep taking bets at OTBs — as Arlington was allowed to do when it shut down for two years under former owner Dick Duchoissois in the late 1990s.

But Racing Board Commissioner Alan Henry, who has been the company’s biggest critic since they put the track on the auction block, called it “time for this board and this state to move on from Churchill Downs.”

“We absolutely should not be enabling them,” said Henry, a former Sun-Times sports editor.

The company’s icy relationship with most in the state’s struggling horse industry came to a head after the final races were run at Arlington in late September, when the Bears announced a $197.2 million deal to buy the suburban land as the potential site of a new stadium.

Grilled by Henry and other board members, Churchill Downs executives argued they had no choice but to sell all 326 acres in Arlington Heights because they’re “worth a lot of money.”

“As a public company, that, unfortunately, is the position that we get put in because we do have a fiduciary obligation to our shareholders,” said Churchill Downs’ chief operating officer Bill Mudd, who insisted they’re looking for another location in the state to open a track but wouldn’t specify where.

That claim has been met with skepticism from horse owners and trainers who are convinced Churchill Downs passed on the opportunity to open a casino at the track to avoid creating any competition against their other Illinois asset: Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

“What’s to convince us that you are looking for something? I don’t think you guys are,” said Commissioner Ben Reyes, who voted against the request.

Of the six OTBs surrendered by Arlington, Hawthorne Race Course — the Chicago area’s lone surviving racetrack — picked up four, but they’d need a change in state law to take on the other two.

The Racing Board did vote to allow Churchill Downs to keep operating its mobile betting platform through a partnership with Illinois’ only other track, Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville.

Henry was the lone holdout against that motion.

“This is not about looking backward in anger. This is about looking forward with confidence that the racing industry is not going to once again be blindsided by a corporation driven by objectives not compatible with a healthy racing industry,” he said.

The Bears’ deal to buy Arlington isn’t expected to close for at least a year.