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Bids in for Arlington Park sale — and Bears move still ‘on the table,’ mayor says

Only one group has made their offer for the historic racetrack public. The Chicago Bears have yet to rule themselves out.

Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in 2000, when it was purchased by Churchill Downs Inc. The corporation is now selling the track.
Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in 2000, when it was purchased by Churchill Downs Inc. The corporation is now selling the track.
AP file

The fate of Arlington International Racecourse has been narrowed down to a list of potential buyers for the storied suburban track.

Churchill Downs Inc. closed its bidding period for Arlington on Tuesday, with representatives for the horse racing-turned-gambling corporation saying only that it received “strong proposals from numerous parties” interested in taking over the 93-year-old oval.

Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes said Wednesday he’d met with “less than 10” possible bidding groups before the deadline, and only one of those, led by former Arlington Park president Roy Arnold, has gone public with an offer that promises to keep the horses running beyond Sept. 25.

A spokesman for Churchill Downs declined to say how many proposals were submitted. The corporation said it would “provide an update on the sale process at the appropriate time in the coming weeks.”

The bids could mark the final turn for horse racing at Arlington, one of Illinois’ three remaining racetracks — an outcome few predicted two years ago when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a massive gambling expansion into law that allows tracks to install slot machines and casino table games.

Churchill Downs stunned the state’s foundering horse racing industry in the summer of 2019 when the corporation announced it wouldn’t make Arlington a “racino” as it had long fought to do.

That was viewed as the ultimate stab in the back by the horse owners and trainers who run at the track, and who have accused the corporation of trying to stifle competition against the other nearby gambling house owned by Churchill Downs: Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

After denying reports the track would be put up for sale, Churchill Downs officially put Arlington on the block in February. The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has since urged Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office to open an antitrust investigation into the corporation for alleged “efforts to neutralize the threat of major gaming competition.”

The only bidding group to publicize their proposal says they’d turn Arlington into a racino “consistent with the intent” of the state’s gambling expansion — and keep the ponies running well into the future.

Roy Arnold, pictured in 2008.
Roy Arnold, pictured in 2008.
Sun-Times file

The group led by Arnold, a hospitality consultant who served as president of Arlington from 2006-11, also includes the Loop development firm Sterling Bay and other “high net worth individuals,” he said.

“We have the capital and the passion to make thoroughbred racing work at Arlington Park,” Arnold said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing the legacy that is Arlington.”

Their bid for the 326-acre plot also calls for a mid-size arena “suitable to host a minor league hockey team,” plus an entertainment district, a 300-unit housing development and 60 acres of industrial space.

Arnold declined to disclose their offer price.

Other bidders remain unknown, but the highest profile dark-horse candidate might still be in the race: the Chicago Bears.

Representatives for the team — who have conspicuously declined to quash suggestions the team could make a move to the northwest suburbs — did not respond to requests for comment on whether the team or anyone in its ownership group made an offer for Arlington.

Hayes, the suburban mayor, said a Bears bid “remains a possibility because neither they nor anyone else has told me it’s not going to happen.”

“Until someone tells me that, I’m going to consider it on the table,” Hayes said. “A professional sports team would be exciting. Even if they were to come, you’d see some other redevelopment prospects as well.”

Village Board members passed an ordinance in May barring certain uses for the property, including warehouses, distribution facilities, gas stations, “adult uses and other things that are not befitting our community and the legacy of the property,” said Hayes, who added that keeping horse racing alive remains a priority for him.

“Arlington Park has been a big part of our community for almost 100 years. We have a horse head on our village flag. It’s a huge part of our community from an image, an attraction and an employment standpoint,” he said. “We want to see it put to its highest and best use.”