Churchill Downs commits to horse racing in Illinois — but not at Arlington

Now that Arlington International Racecourse is officially for sale, the owners of Churchill Downs Inc. on Thursday reiterated their desire to relocate Arlington's horse racing operations elsewhere in Illinois, despite questions over the process to do so.

“It is our intention to work constructively with state and local authorities to find a solution to continue thoroughbred operations in Illinois, and we look forward to further constructive dialogue as we explore alternatives,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said during a quarterly earnings call Thursday morning. “I am optimistic that the state and local authorities are interested in finding a path forward with us.”

Long rumored, Churchill brass finally announced in a Tuesday afternoon news release plans to put the 326-acre Arlington Heights racetrack property up for sale, marketing it as a “redevelopment opportunity.” They also committed to running the scheduled 68 days of live racing this season, scheduled from April 30 to Sept. 25.

“We will conduct racing in 2021 at the track while moving forward with the transaction to sell this highly desirable land for other non-horse racing mixed-use options,” Carstanjen said on the Thursday call.

In an interview later Thursday, Illinois Racing Board Chairman Dan Beiser said he was saddened — but not surprised — by Churchill's decision to sell, because of comments Carstanjen has made in the past.

That said, Beiser said he's willing to work with the Louisville-based corporation if it means enhancing the struggling Illinois horse racing industry and saving the jobs of backstretch workers and others who make their livelihoods at the track.

“What concerns me the most is the day-in, day-out men and women who make horse racing go at Arlington in the backstretch. Those are the ones I really feel for,” said Beiser, of downstate Godfrey. “If we take their statement at their word — to try to relocate in the state of Illinois — we as a racing board would be more than willing to help with that process, within the guidelines of that statute. We'd be more than willing to do that ... for the men and women who would be making that new facility happen, wherever that may be.”

How that exact process may play out is still unclear, since organizational licenses can't be transferred to another location, under the state's Horse Racing Act.

But Churchill could present a new license application to be vetted and approved by the racing board, a state oversight panel appointed by the governor.

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents horse owners and trainers who race at Arlington, has questioned Churchill's ability to move the license away from Arlington.

The association has been critical of Churchill's 2019 decision not to seek the addition of slots and table games that could have reinvigorated Arlington's purse accounts, in lieu of maximizing its investment in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

“The notion that a seasoned gaming operator would relocate a racing license away from a state-of-the-art, modern racing facility near the heart of the Chicago metropolitan region to some yet-to-be-determined location is absurd,” association President Mike Campbell said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”

The closure of Arlington would leave two horse racing tracks in Illinois: Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney/Cicero and Fairmount Park in Collinsville.

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Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen, center, pictured at Arlington International Racecourse in 2010 with Chairman Emeritus Richard Duchossois and bugler Jean Laurenz, announced this week the historic track is for sale. Daily Herald File Photo, 2010
Dan Beiser, Illinois Racing Board chair
Mike Campbell, Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association president
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