Something about the sights, sounds and smells: Arlington fan hopes track can be saved

From his childhood home in Omaha, Nebraska, Rich Peck could see everything but the finish line at a horse racing track that's long since shuttered.

The Arlington Heights horseplayer fears Arlington Park will face the same fate. But he and his group of about 20 die-hard fans who've been watching and wagering on ponies there for decades still believe there's a chance to save one of the gems of American horse racing.

Peck and friends - who regularly hold court from tables just west of the grandstand building - drafted a letter to state and local officials, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, imploring them to help keep Arlington open. The move follows owner Churchill Downs Inc.'s decision in February to put the 326-acre property up for sale, preceded by CEO Bill Carstanjen's declaration the summer before that the land "will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point."

"It's been a racetrack since 1927 and now all of a sudden, in your wisdom, Churchill, it's deemed to be worthy of a 'higher purpose'? I thought that was total BS on their part," said Peck, an attendee at 15 Kentucky Derby races who has been coming to Arlington since the early 1990s.

"We don't need any more apartments or condominiums. We certainly don't need any more strip malls. ... The true calling of the facility is exactly what it already is."

Peck and others in their self-titled "west end group" were enthused when state gambling expansion legislation was approved in 2019, only to be disappointed when Churchill declined to pursue slots and table games at Arlington that the law enabled. The added gambling had been long-sought by horse owners, trainers and track management as a way to supplant declining purses and attract better horses to Illinois.

But Churchill - having invested in a 61% stake in nearby Rivers Casino in Des Plaines - said the tax structure of the new law was unworkable.

While those in his group are horse racing enthusiasts first and gamblers second, Peck said they wanted slots and table games for "the financial benefit to the racetrack and all the people, from fans to workers, associated with it."

If Arlington and its associated off-track betting parlor close, the group will probably get together at the OTB run by Hawthorne Race Course in nearby Prospect Heights. They'll still have their camaraderie and friendship, but the setting will be different, Peck says.

"There's something about the sights and the sounds and the smells of the live product."

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  Rich Peck of Arlington Heights, a longtime attendee of Arlington Park, wrote to state and local officials along with his group of about 20 die-hard fans in hopes of saving the historic venue. Brian Hill/
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