Is horse racing the next business that Illinois will lose?

So, who cares?

Going, going, gone? The final turn at Arlington?

Churchill Downs’ decision to sell the prestigious and beautiful Arlington International Racecourse has drawn a bunch of ho-hums about whether it signals the end of horse racing in the Chicago area.

The perilous state of horse racing–only one track will be left operating in the area–is vastly overshadowed by the question of whether the Chicago Bears would buy the track.

Churchhill Downs Inc., the owner of the Kentucky Derby and other racetracks, perhaps the most recognizable name in the industry, apparently doesn’t give a fig for horse racing in Chicago. It has decided to dump Arlington because it competes with its revenues from the nearby casino it owns in Des Plaines. So much for loyalty to the fans, the thousands of employees, the horse owners and trainers, Arlington Heights and anyone else connected to the track.

It strikes me as odd and sad that with all the attention directed at the flight of businesses from Illinois that the decline and possible loss of what was once, long ago, the most popular sport around, has received so little notice.

When the Bears signed a $197 million purchase agreement for the racetrack land, the master plan reportedly didn’t include keeping the track. ,

But despite the approaching demise, the Illinois Racing Board has nothing to say about the industry that it regulates. Only one voice on the board has raised important questions. And there are many:

  • If the Bears buy the track and its sprawling 326 acres, will they continue racing or tear down the stands for a new stadium?
  • Is any other possible buyer interested in keeping the track open? What are the chances?
  • If the Bears don’t go through with the purchase, what happens to the track? Will a developer buy it just to add to the vast landscape of ordinary and nondescript suburban office buildings, malls and houses?
  • Will the nearly century-old track become yet another historic site to be defiled by greed and self-aggrandizement (like the Obama Center will defile the historic Jackson Park)?
  • Will the sport be able to survive with the loss of Arlington, leaving only one–Hawthorne Race Course–as last track in the Chicago? (The only other track in Illinois is located far, far Downstate.)

While other members of the racing board sit mute, turning to mere housekeeping matters, the only member who is racing such questions is Alan Henry. (Disclosure: He is a former colleague at the Chicago Sun-Tiems and a friend.)

“…some thoroughbred trainers are now considering moving to Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas…”

Henry pointed out out that  former Arlington Park president Roy Arnold has made an offer–less than the Bears’–that would keep the horses running. A possible Bears-Arlington Park partnership, Henry said, “makes too much sense to blithely dismiss. And because if the Bears withdraw, [Arnold] is standing at the ready,”

“I get that it looks bleak,” Henry said. “But 30-year Marine Corps veteran Roy Arnold, the front man for the underbidders, made it clear…that he is not retreating,”

The Bears purchases agreement, is “not evidence of a done deal. There are still many variables out there. Just one of them is that at any moment, Chicago’s mayor could throw some serious cards on the table now that the Bears have called her bluff.”

Henry ominously warned:

As I hear it, some thoroughbred trainers are now considering moving to Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas at the end of the current Hawthorne meet and not coming back in late winter. Some are also looking at Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, and other states for 2022 given the need to lock in stalls next summer.

And just like that, another loss for Illinois–a forlorn state that needs to hold on to every possibility for renewal.

Churchill Downs brags on its website about how wonderful it is, hosting 147 years of the Derby, runs the nation’s “Most profitable online sports and horse race wagering platform, an ” industry-leading regional casinos and HRM [Horse Racing Manager]/racing properties” and a supporter of more than 600 community nonprofits.

That’s swell. Never Mind that Churchill Downs may be planting a shive in one more desperately needed Illinois business. And most of Illinois’ leadership doesn’t give a horse’s petute.

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  • now that you can bet online or at OTB parlors, who need to go to the track or any venue? you sit at home or on the computer at work and bet...the only time I went to the track was for the antique shows held there...I don't bet and the next generations don't seem interested in these sports

  • One side of the equation you haven't mentioned is the side of the horses. They could give a human's petute.

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