Arlington Park on the block: Corporate owner Churchill Downs looks to sell historic racetrack

Churchill Downs Inc. is pitching the 93-year-old track as a “redevelopment opportunity,” meaning 2021 could be the last year the horses run at Arlington.

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Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in 2000. The track’s corporate owner Churchill Downs is putting it up for sale.

Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in 2000. The track’s corporate owner Churchill Downs is putting it up for sale.


Horse racing could make its final turn at Arlington Park this fall.

Touting the 93-year-old track as a “redevelopment opportunity,” the corporate owner of Arlington International Racecourse announced Tuesday it’s selling the historic oval and all 326 suburban acres it sits on.

Executives at Churchill Downs Inc. say they’re “committed” to having the ponies run as scheduled at Arlington from April 30 through Sept. 25, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess if the starting bugles will call again.

Bill Carstanjen, CEO of the Louisville-based gambling and racing corporation, signaled a potential sale last summer when he declared the property would have “a higher and better purpose,” but Churchill Downs previously denied reports that Arlington was on the block.

The company has complained of high gambling taxes in Illinois amid bitter disputes with the horse owners and trainers who compete there — and who viewed it as the ultimate stab in the back when Churchill Downs refused to take advantage of new state gambling legislation in 2019 that allows the state’s three surviving racetracks to become casinos.

So while the slots and sportsbooks viewed as lifelines for the foundering industry are being built up at those two other tracks — Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and Fairmount Park near St. Louis — Churchill Downs will seek bids for Arlington through the brokerage firm CBRE.

“Arlington’s ideal location in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, together with direct access to downtown Chicago via an on-site Metra rail station, presents a unique redevelopment opportunity,” Carstanjen said in a statement. “We expect to see robust interest in the site and look forward to working with potential buyers, in collaboration with the Village of Arlington Heights, to transition this storied location to its next phase.”

Carstanjen said Churchill Downs is “very committed to pursuing the relocation of Arlington’s racing license to another community” in Illinois, though that’s not how the process works in the state.

Tracks apply for specific racing dates with the Illinois Racing Board, not a moveable license. Members of that governor-appointed state board have slammed the company’s past threats to move.

Churchill Downs says it’s “exploring potential options with the State and other constituents and remain optimistic that we can find solutions that work for the State, local communities and the thousands of Illinoisans who make their living directly or indirectly from thoroughbred horse racing.”

“We are committed to the Illinois thoroughbred racing industry and will consider all options in working toward opportunities for it to continue into the future,” Carstanjen said.

Horse owners and trainers represented by the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association have long said the easiest way to do that would be for Arlington to become a sportsbook and “racino,” with the additional gambling revenue supplementing horse racing purses that have shrunk almost in half over the past two decades.

Instead, they’ve said Churchill Downs is doubling down on its other major Illinois gambling property, which is just a 20-minute drive away down I-90: Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, the state’s most lucrative gambling house.

“Churchill is just trying to obfuscate from the fact that it cares only about maximizing profit and will gladly sacrifice the spirit of Illinois law and the livelihood of working Illinoisans to serve its greed,” Mike Campbell, president of the horse owners’ and trainers’ group, said in a statement.

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, pictured last July.

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, pictured last July.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

News of Arlington’s sale came less than a week after Rivers announced the company would invest $87 million in a 78,000-square-foot expansion to max out with 2,000 gaming positions as allowed under the state gambling expansion.

State revenue figures would back up that business calculation. Rivers churned out $321 million in revenue in 2020 despite an extended COVID-19 shutdown. Arlington took about half that amount in bets during a full year of racing in 2019, and that’s before paying out winners.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is betting on added revenue from racinos to help fund a $45 billion capital improvement plan.

“While we are awaiting details on Churchill Downs’ plans to maintain horse racing in Illinois, the administration will work with all stakeholders to develop an appropriate solution,” a spokeswoman for Pritzker said in an email. “We remain committed to ensuring a strong racing industry in our state.”

Arlington opened in 1927 and famously burned down in 1985, only to be reconstructed in time to run its trademark “Arlington Million” race that same year.

And Churchill Downs, the namesake of the home of the Kentucky Derby, isn’t the first owner to threaten to move the track. Arlington was owned for years by the Duchossois family, who regularly complained about high racing taxes as the state introduced other forms of legal gambling.

The Arlington Heights oval has also often been rumored as a potential relocation site for the Chicago Bears. The team’s lease at Soldier Field doesn’t expire for another decade.

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