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A scratch for Arlington next year: Track passes on race dates as owner mulls potential sale to Bears

Horse owners and trainers accused the track’s corporate owner of “writing the book on bad faith,” but Arlington president Tony Petrillo insisted “there’s been no decision to abandon thoroughbred racing.”

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 Bears might end up at Arlington Park, but the ponies won’t be there next year.

As the corporate owner of the historic suburban oval mulls bids from the Chicago Bears and other potential buyers, the deadline passed Friday afternoon for the track to apply with state regulators for a racing license in 2022 — guaranteeing there won’t be horse racing in Arlington Heights next year.

Under state law, tracks have to apply with the Illinois Racing Board by the end of July for specific racing dates the following year. No application was submitted by Arlington International Racecourse, meaning its final race day, Sept. 25, could be its last ever.

Arlington President Tony Petrillo said the inaction was “consistent” with the owner Churchill Downs’ strategy for a track that is at “an economic disadvantage in a hypersensitive market” — but he insisted the company isn’t out of the horse racing game altogether. They’re considering building another race course somewhere else in the state, according to Petrillo, who couldn’t offer any specifics.

“There’s been no decision to abandon thoroughbred racing,” he said.

Either way, there won’t be any racing at Arlington next spring.

Churchill Downs Senior Vice President Brad Blackwell, left, and Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo answer questions from the Illinois Racing Board in September 2019.
Churchill Downs Senior Vice President Brad Blackwell, left, and Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo answer questions from the Illinois Racing Board in September 2019.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Churchill Downs first signaled the end a year ago when CEO Bill Carstanjen suggested there was “a higher and better purpose” for the 326 acres containing the 93-year-old track, and refused to commit to racing beyond 2021.

After months of denying the park was for sale, Arlington was officially put on the block in February, and the Bears announced last month they’d submitted a bid in order “to further evaluate the property and its potential” as the site of a new stadium.

Carstanjen said during a quarterly earnings call Thursday that “we’re very excited” at the opportunity to “monetize” Arlington, and that the corporation is “working through the process to select the final winning bid.”

Horses in the Bruce D. Memorial Stakes pass the grandstand at Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights in 2017.
Horses in the Bruce D. Memorial Stakes pass the grandstand at Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights in 2017.
John Starks/Daily Herald via AP

Trainers and owners of horses that run at Arlington had held out hope the track would at least apply for 2022 racing dates “to preserve the possibility of future racing at the track,” but slammed what they call the corporation’s “campaign to sabotage future gaming opportunities at Arlington Park.”

“Churchill Downs is writing the book on bad faith, so this latest move is disappointing but not surprising,” Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said in a statement.

Representatives for the corporation declined to comment.

The association has been viciously at odds with Churchill Downs for nearly two years since the track announced it wouldn’t apply for a newly authorized state license to operate as a “racino” with slot machines and table games.

The company had lobbied for that privilege for decades to help save the shrinking horse racing industry, but it complained of high taxes and backed out after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a massive gambling expansion into law in the summer of 2019.

Churchill Downs also owns Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, which is a 25-minute drive away from the track — and by far the most lucrative casino in Illinois.

“Churchill’s commitment to stopping any gaming at Arlington from competing with Rivers is the worst kept secret in Illinois,” Campbell said. “It’s clear that Churchill Downs cares exclusively about corporate profit and that all other considerations are incidental.”

Take The Points, left, with jockey Kent Desormeaux, wins the Secretariat Stakes horse race at Arlington International Racecourse in 2009.
Take The Points, left, with jockey Kent Desormeaux, wins the Secretariat Stakes horse race at Arlington International Racecourse in 2009.
John Smierciak/AP file

Petrillo confirmed the track sent out layoff notices to employees last week, but didn’t have an exact number. The Daily Herald reported about 300 people will be jobless after the season.

While the dream of a new Bears stadium has drawn the most attention, it’s still possible horse racing could return to Arlington. The only other public bidding group is led by former Arlington president Roy Arnold and also includes the downtown mega-developer Sterling Bay.

Their bid, which is backed by the horse trainers and owners, calls for a minor league hockey stadium, housing development and entertainment district alongside the track.

Aerial photo of Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in 2012. No racing will take place at the track in 2022.
Aerial photo of Arlington International Racecourse, pictured in 2012. No racing will take place at the track in 2022.
Sun-Times Media

Even if selected, they’d have to wait at least till next year to apply for a racing license, barring a change in state law.

It wouldn’t be the first time Arlington missed a year of racing. Former track owner Dick Duchoissois pulled the plug on the 1998 and ‘99 racing seasons in an effort to pressure state lawmakers into passing legislation giving the state’s tracks a leg up on competition from Illinois’ then-new riverboat casinos.

But if Churchill Downs passes on the Arnold-Sterling Bay offer, it could leave Illinois’ struggling horse racing industry with just two tracks: Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney and Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville. About 10 tracks were operating in the state during the sport’s heyday in the 1940’s and ‘50s.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said from the city’s most recent discussions with Churchill Downs, a sale decision “doesn’t seem imminent.”

“It’s unfortunate that it seems like we won’t have racing next year, but perhaps the year after that,” Hayes said. “It certainly will have an impact on our community. It’ll be different.”