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Seller’s remorse? Or relief? Arlington Racecourse owner betting Bears will build ‘world-class stadium’ at the site

Bears representatives so far have only said that the team is performing its “due diligence” in exploring the potential for a new stadium at the 326-acre suburban plot.

Arlington International Racecourse at 2200 Euclid Ave. in Arlington Heights. The Chicago Bears have a deal to purchase the 326-acre parcel.
Arlington International Racecourse at 2200 Euclid Ave. in Arlington Heights. The Chicago Bears have a deal to purchase the 326-acre parcel.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The CEO of the gambling corporation selling Arlington International Racecourse to the Chicago Bears said Thursday he expects the team to build “a world-class stadium” at the storied northwest suburban site.

In the first public comments from an executive on either side of the bombshell $197 million sale agreement announced last month, Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen expressed remorse for the loss of one sport at the Arlington Heights oval and excitement for the possible introduction of another.

“Although we are sad to close Arlington Park and would have loved to continue racing and investing in the region, we believe that the Chicago Bears will ultimately develop this prime real estate into a world-class stadium and development, with numerous amenities for fans and residents to enjoy over the coming decades,” Carstanjen said during a quarterly earnings call.

Bears representatives so far have only said that the team is performing its “due diligence” in exploring the potential for a new stadium at the 326-acre plot, where the final thoroughbred races were held a few days before the sale was announced Sept. 29.

Carstanjen called the decision to sell Arlington “a comment on the archaic racing laws that really haven’t been changed in a material way in [Illinois] in 30-plus years, and no longer worked.”

In fact, those laws changed drastically in 2019 with the passage of a massive gambling expansion that allows horse racing tracks to become “racinos” with slot machines and table games as a means of supplementing dwindling purses for the state’s struggling horse racing industry. Churchill Downs had lobbied for that privilege for decades alongside other gambling interests, only to pass on the opportunity, blaming high taxes.

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

Carstanjen dismissed that legislation, saying “it wasn’t really passed in a form that was enough to make up for the racing paradigm in the state.”

So instead of investing in the 93-year-old track, the Lousiville-based corporation is opting to sell it to the Bears, who outbid a group led by former Arlington International Racecourse president Roy Arnold that wanted to keep the ponies running.

Despite a Daily Herald report that another racing-minded group was courting the Bears about resuming racing, the team is “not pursuing any horse racing opportunities on the site,” Bears spokesman Scott Hagel said in an email.

The sale is not expected to close until late 2022 or early 2023, contingent on the team receiving approvals from officials in the suburb. Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes said last week that his office has held preliminary meetings with team representatives, but that the Bears have yet to lay out specific visions for the land.

Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes at Arlington International Racecourse.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes at Arlington International Racecourse.
Mark Welsh/Daily Herald

The team would be on the hook for about $87 million if they were to break its lease at Soldier Field after the estimated five years it could take to finish building a suburban dome.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has beckoned the organization back to the bargaining table in a bid to keep them on the lakefront. The team has expressed interest in opening a sportsbook at the aging stadium, but Lightfoot has been cool on that idea as her office also tries to attract developers for a full-blown casino in the city.

Carstanjen said Churchill Downs will not be one of the bidders for that casino license. Applications are due to Lightfoot’s office Friday.