'It's a sad day in Arlington Heights': Arlington Park owner puts track up for sale

Long expected by racing industry observers and feared by horse owners, trainers and fans, Arlington International Racecourse's status as a gem for the sport of kings is about to come to the finish line.

Churchill Downs Inc., owner of the storied Arlington Heights track where horses have raced since 1927, announced Tuesday it plans to put the 326 acres near Euclid Avenue and Wilke Road up for sale. Churchill will use Chicago-based real estate firm CBRE to market the "redevelopment opportunity," officials announced in a Tuesday afternoon news release.

And after previously casting doubt on whether a 2021 race meet would be held, Churchill officials on Tuesday said they're committed to running Arlington's 68 live race dates, scheduled from April 30 to Sept. 25.

They said they don't expect a sale to close before the end of the race meet, or that the sale process will affect Arlington's racing operations this year.

"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," Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said in the release. "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."

Tuesday's announcement by the Louisville, Kentucky-based horse racing and gambling corporation was foreshadowed by comments made by Carstanjen last July, when he said the land on which the track sits would "have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point."

"The long-term solution is not Arlington Park," Carstanjen said on the July 30 quarterly earnings call, in response to a question from an industry analyst.

As such, news of the prospective property sale - which came via a 3 p.m. news release - was not surprising, said Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes.

"Certainly, it was expected," Hayes said. "We just didn't know the timing of it all. We've seen the writing on the wall from announcements and discussions we've had with Churchill Downs over the last several months."

"It's a sad day in Arlington Heights to lose the business that's been our main attraction in town for 100 years."

Arlington's future had been growing ever more precarious after Churchill brass decided to forgo the addition of slots and tables games - long seen as a lifeline for the struggling local horse racing industry. The casino-style games were allowed under a massive Illinois gambling expansion package, but Churchill officials said the 2019 law's tax structure and an increasingly saturated gambling market would make it hard to gain an acceptable financial return.

At the same time, Churchill has focused its efforts on its property only 10 miles away from Arlington: Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, the state's most lucrative casino. Churchill acquired a 61% stake in the casino in March 2019.

Last week, Churchill unveiled plans for an $87 million, 78,000-square-foot addition at Rivers that will house a poker room, more slots, an events ballroom and new restaurant.

Carstanjen on Tuesday reiterated previous suggestions that Churchill could try to relocate Arlington's racing license to another community in the Chicago area or elsewhere in the state.

Churchill owns the former Quad City Downs in East Moline, which closed in 2015. Churchill and its Rivers partner, Rush Street Gaming, also are bidding for a new casino in Waukegan.

"We are 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," Carstanjen said in the release. "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."

Hayes said he had hoped Arlington would remain a racetrack for decades to come - and he expressed those wishes in conversations with Carstanjen and others at Churchill - but it became clear in recent months "there wasn't a lot of wiggle room involved," the mayor said.

An internal village committee since late 2019 has been examining what to do with the property should Arlington close its doors. Hayes said that could include a host of mixed uses, including retail, commercial, residential and entertainment - such as a stadium or music venue.

"I do expect us to have pretty extensive involvement because of the zoning regulations and land use requirements," Hayes said. "It behooves us to encourage something very exciting and unique for that property that will benefit Arlington Heights and the region for decades to come."

Arlington's impending shutdown follows a spate of other local horse racing track closures in recent years, from Maywood Park in West suburban Melrose Park to Balmoral Park in South suburban Crete. It would leave Hawthorne Race Course in Southwest suburban Stickney/Cicero - the oldest continuously family-owned and operated track in the nation - as the Chicago area's lone horse racing venue.

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  Arlington International Racecourse is going on sale as a "redevelopment opportunity," owners Churchill Downs Inc. announced Tuesday. Churchill officials pledged to keep the historic horse racing venue open for the 2021 season. Mark Welsh/, 2020
Horses take off during the 37th running of the Arlington Million at Arlington International Racecourse in 2019. It looks more likely than ever that 2021 will be the last year of racing at the iconic track. Daily Herald File Photo, 2019
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